Two of the 10 songs from May Your Kindness Remain, Courtney Marie Andrews’ astonishingly beautiful new album, have the word kindness in the title. This is not a coincidence. The idea of kindness — of empathy, of giving unto others, of needing the same from others — is as central to Andrews’ music as partying is to Andrew W.K. Even when it’s not what she’s singing about, it’s what she’s singing about. It reverberates all through the album, an emotional note that Andrews never leaves unstruck.
One song on May Your Kindness Remain is about an old, broken-down, permanently messy house and about the couple who used to live there. It’s clear that they’re not still together — “There’s a bed upstairs if you’re ever in town / Or if you need a place to get your feet back on the ground” — but there’s still a fondness, a feeling of togetherness. She sings that the house is their home, that it belongs to both of them, and it feels like a powerful act of generosity, a gift of a song. It’s about how that warmth can outlast the end of a relationship. It’s just lovely.
There are some staggering love songs on May Your Kindness Remain, and there are also songs about needing love, about requiring that sort of empathy. “Lift The Lonely From My Heart” is about depression, about needing someone else’s help to get through it: “Pining, mining for a feeling I’m not finding / Looking to you to tell me what I’m worth.” And then there’s a song like “I’ve Hurt Worse,” about knowing that empathy is not coming back to you: “I like you when I have to call you a second time / It keeps me wondering if you are mine / Mother says you love who you think you deserve / But I’ve hurt worse.” Andrews herself calls it a sarcastic song, but I hear a note of longing in there, of self-recrimination. Andrews is working within a country-music tradition that’s long prized a brassy toughness, but even at her hardest, that’s not really what she’s about. And that, in its way, is why a song like that cuts even deeper.
The empathy extends, too, to people beyond Andrews’ relationships, to people she might not know. “Two Cold Nights In Buffalo” is a song about getting stranded in an edge-of-oblivion upstate New York town, taking in all the misery around you, and wondering how shit ever got this bad. It gets a little on-the-nose when Andrews starts wondering how this place ever got this bad — “Is that the American dream dying?” — but it hits hard when she takes in the individual scenes of misery, extrapolating from a glance: “A snowy prison out on Main Street, heaters hang from the cells / A bum searches for shelter, so cold he dreams of hell.” And on “Border Song,” she imagines the life of a Mexican immigrant trying to get through the desert, dreaming of a better life that’s still a hell of a lot harder than what most of the people reading this website will ever have to endure: “Stand outside that hardware store / Don’t matter the job they need me for.”
Andrews’ music isn’t country the way “country” is commonly understood now. It’s country the same way that, for instance, the Black Keys’ music is metal, which is to say that it’s something that could’ve been called country in 1971 even if the tag no longer applies. Her voice has a deep twang, the kind that sticks to you. Her voice is huge, warm, expressive. She’s not a soul singer, but she’s got that soul-singer balance of fire and control, the two elements working together rather than against each other. Occasionally, when she’s really cutting loose, she gets some gospel in her voice. The album has some hazy psychedelic tremolo guitar and some sweaty blues-rock organ. She’s an Americana singer, I guess, but she doesn’t have the sleepy reverence that I (maybe wrongly) tend to associate with Americana singers. Her music is heavy and direct and alive.
Andrews is only 27, but she’s already a veteran. She released her first album when she was a teenager, and she’s been steadily cranking out music for about a decade while moving from Arizona to Seattle to Los Angeles. For a while, she was touring as a keyboardist and a backup singer for Jimmy Eat World. And for a while after that, she was bartending whenever she wasn’t touring. That changed in 2016 with the release of Honest Life, the album that finally got her noticed by the kinds of people who notice really good Americana albums. (I still slept on it.) If Honest Life was Andrews’ break, then May Your Kindness Remain is her big reach.
The new album belongs absolutely to Andrews. She sang and played guitar on every song, and she wrote all of them except for the one she co-wrote with a couple of dudes. She also co-produced it with Mark Howard, a veteran studio type who’s been doing mixing and engineering for people like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits for many years. It’s not a huge leap beyond Honest Life, but it’s got the exact right level of musical lushness. Andrews’ voice dominates, but it doesn’t overpower, and the arrangements shimmer like mirages around her. And for someone like me, someone who’s been shamefully ignorant of all the music that Andrews has been making for all these years, it’s a head-spinning discovery, a warm and gorgeous and fully formed piece of work. The kindness isn’t just in the lyrics. It’s in the way music like this can nourish you, can make your insides glow. An album like this can be a refuge.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Jack White’s uneasy try-hard rocker Boarding House Reach.
• Alice Bag’s impassioned, soulful punker Blueprint.
• The Messthetics math-rocking instrumental self-titled debut.
• Sunflower Bean’s suspiciously shiny but genuinely catchy quasi-indie power-popper Twentytwo In Blue.
• Preoccupations’ postpunk zone-out New Material.
• Bonny Doon’s rootsy slacker-rocker Long Wave.
• Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s way-out progger DIRT.
• Guided By Voices’ latest inscrutable hook-onslaught Space Gun.
• Heartless Bastards leader Erika Wennerstrom’s solo album Sweet Unknown.
• Neil Young & The Promise Of The Real’s soundtrack to the movie Paradox.
• Diplo’s California EP.
• Mark Pritchard’s The Four Worlds EP.