Album reviews: Craig David – The Time Is Now, Mary Gauthier – Rifles & Rosary Beads, Buffy Sainte-Marie – Medicine Songs, and more
Mary Gauthier’s reputation as one of today’s greatest songwriters, admired by peers such as Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, is rooted in her relentless commitment to honesty and accuracy – most notably in the autobiographical song-cycle The Foundling, which dealt with her abandonment as a baby, becoming a teenage runaway, and drug and alcohol addiction. Her work may not always be easy listening, but the bell-like ring of truth resonates throughout.With Rifles & Rosary Beads, she’s created her most impressive and affecting work yet. It grew out of the Songwriting With Soldiers project, which brings war veterans together with songwriters tasked to tell their stories. It’s a noble project: on average, more than 30 American veterans take their own lives every day, a huge toll partly caused by the wider world’s sheer incomprehension of their experiences. Many participants in the programme have confirmed its healing, even life-saving, effect, in encouraging “post-traumatic growth”.
Few of the 400 songs it’s so far produced, though, can be as searingly effective as Gauthier’s 11 epistles from the emotional frontline, which reveal the hidden toll of army life, the issues often smothered by codes of courage and fellowship. Set to galumphing folk-rock arrangements of guitar, piano, mandolin, fiddle and drums, which evocatively capture the feel of trudging through the Big Muddy with a backpack and an M-16, they convey a complex mixture of pride, guilt and despair, related by Gauthier with a blue-collar grace that recalls a less gravelly Lucinda Williams.“Soldiering On” opens proceedings with a firm statement of duty, to which is appended a caveat that casts a shadow across the rest of the album: “I was bound to something bigger, more important than a human life,” it asserts, “but what saves you in the battle can kill you at home.”