If Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, and Lucinda Williams decided to pool their musical DNA, their creation wouldn’t be far from Mary Gauthier. Bluesy melancholy and dramatic imagery are throughout her songs, with a downhome delivery that Hank Williams would be proud to claim. Her album Trouble and Love covers heartbreak, loneliness, and survival with twang, resignation, empathy, and hope.
The album starts with “When a Woman Goes Cold” with a theme that will become familiar. The aching feeling of knowing too late that love has gone, and the loneliness of the aftermath. Who has not felt the pang when you realize “you’re no longer her concern” and that the one you built a world around simply does not care anymore?
“False From True” backtracks to the disintegrating relationship, to the moment when “a stranger showed up in your eyes.” The music is heartbreaking in its simplicity, reminiscent of some of John Prine’s best work. The quiet gentle sound eases into your heart and mind, and the lines “I tried, I tried, but I could not break through/There’s two of you and one don’t feel” hit you right in your heart.
“Trouble and Love,” which shares the album’s name, has the same simple writing. “Friends say walk on; it’s more trouble than it’s worth/But my will is gone and my head hangs low/It ain’t the leaving, it’s the way you go” show a person broken, in the middle of the worst of a breakup.
Things can only go up from here, and Gauthier reflects on that in “Oh Soul.” Referencing Robert Johnson’s famous deal with the devil in exchange for musical talent, she says on her website “If anyone would understand the sorrow of selling one’s soul, it would be Robert Johnson. So a visit to his grave, searching for redemption, in solidarity and prayer, in hopes of connecting with the spirit of a fellow traveller during a hard time, a time of deep questioning, well, it just makes sense…” Her tempo goes up ever so slightly, and a soft optimism whispers into the music even while the lyrics reflect her fear of having lost herself in her destroyed relationship. But while the previous songs dwelt on her lost love, here she’s going inward, thinking about what she’s lost, and her desire to reclaim herself, crying “Redemption, redemption/Have mercy on me”.
“What is the process by which deep and mighty blows deepen us, open us, make us better people? How does calamity and deep pain create deep empathy?” So Gauthier muses on her blog post about “Worthy.” The music is quiet, and a touching humility runs together with a growing triumph as the song progresses. She touches on the part of loss that gives strength, and how the process of grieving opens a new view of herself: “Left stumbling in the dark, I had to go within/So I traced my scars, back to where I’d been/A diamond in the dirt, perfectly concealed.”
In a break-up, or any loss for that matter, once you let yourself feel your pain and begin to grow through it, you are able to look around at the people who have hurt you and give them release as well. Gauthier perfectly catches that feeling in “Walking Each Other Home.” Looking back at her hurt, she’s able to be kindly resigned. “Ain’t for me to say what’s bad or good/In the end/I know we did the best we could. . .[and] we’re all just walking each other home.” This song is my favorite of the album.
If she had ended the album here, she would have had a great progression of a breakup. But as anyone who has experienced a painful loss knows too well, accepting the loss is only the beginning. You have to learn to live without the person you loved, with the changed situation–and that lesson is sometimes slow and painful. In “How You Learn to Live Alone” she unflinchingly describes the numbness of living past loss. “You’re not here, but you’re still there/The sun goes up, the sun goes down/And you’re not sure you care” is one of the best descriptions of the long days putting one foot in front of the other, surviving until your life is something you want again. It’s part of the process, and “It don’t feel right, but it’s not wrong.”
And one day you want to live again. Sadder, wiser, you still want to reach out one more time. Your steps may be hesitant, your view may not be as sunny as before, but you find yourself “Moving on through the pain. . ./Waiting on/Another train.”