Mary Chapin Carpenter finds her folk-pop heart on The Dirt and the Stars

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s twangy, peppy hits bounced up the country charts in the 90s, but their cowboy boots always seemed like they pinched a bit. Twenty-some years later, Carpenter’s records have eased into a more comfortable idiom, scuffing up their coffeehouse folk with a bit of rock. On The Dirt and the Stars (Lambent Light), her voice has lost a lot of its snap and range, but its ragged edge fits well with her confessional, resolutely earnest approach. She includes the obligatory anti-Trump anthem (“American Stooge”), and the title track is an ill-advised AOR ballad that clocks in at a really unnecessary 7:43, complete with the usual guitar histrionics. The songs to show up for—which outnumber the missteps—are the frankly maudlin midtempo melodic strummers. On “It’s Okay to Be Sad” Carpenter sings, “Instead of breaking I’m hoping / The cracks beginning to spread / Is me breaking open,” conveying wounded uplift with a mixture of vulnerability and hope that seems engineered with almost surgical precision to put a tear in your eye and leave you verklempt. On “All Broken Hearts Break Differently” she finds the bright-eyed core of the sad pop song, and offers all her forlorn listeners the chance to be dreamily miserable alone together in one languid, undemanding groove. Sometimes veteran performers can lose their way as their mainstream audiences move on to new trends, but Carpenter seems to have found her true home out amidst the dirt, the schmaltz, and the stars.   v

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