REVIEW: Lori McKenna’s “The Tree” is Family Tree of Heartbreaking Honesty and Beauty


Lori McKenna’s new release The Tree (CN Records/Thirty Tigers)  features cover art by Sydney Clawson, of a tree whose roots are all entangled growing in a heart.  The art is compelling, but more significantly, the concept precisely captures the nature of this record.  It’s all natural heart grounding life and the family tree.

Two-time Grammy Award winner Lori McKenna’s mature philosophical songwriting is destined to win more awards this year, as it flows through topics of the reality of the human condition and family life: covering subjects like motherhood, a man transferring his desire to “fix” his ailing wife, nostalgia for high school and angry innocence, aging and mortality, and a woman’s resolve not to be broken by her heartbreakingly detached man.

It’s quite literally impossible not to hear the opening track “A Mother Never Rests“ and not fight back tears: “she only sits for a minute, she’s a hummingbird in the living room…. she bit her lip and didn’t cry the day your hatchback left,” at which point: good luck not crying, yourself. McKenna’s vocals are beautifully unlike any other, and come from the heart, not the desire to impress. Later, she’ll emphasize this in layers with “Like Patsy Would” — co-written with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose — the album closer that’s just as potent as its opener.

“The Fixer” contains emotional punches like “the fighter is fighting so damn hard to sit on the chair out in the back yard, and the kids will come by later on and they’ll all pretend nothing is wrong; he’s got bicycle tires and lawnmower parts … unknown things” over choreographed dueling acoustic guitars. “People Get Old” continues to drag your heart through simple realities of aging and mortality that we spend our lives avoiding in inauthentic trivialization, or authentic denial, bounding aloft over easy acoustic guitar.

“Young and Angry Again,” captures youthful defiance around high school graduation with “throwing bottles at a high school chain link fence, telling yourself all you’ll ever need is a heart full of fire and gasoline, I could use a little of who I was in that way back when.” “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s” continues this lyric painting of youthful nostalgia with “I know we can’t go back in time, but every now and then you look at me and I know you wonder why we can’t go back in time to when September was our only adversary.” And anyone who’s felt the pain of a partner slowly distancing himself through alcohol, lies, and more, will feel the cathartic release of “You Can’t Break a Woman:” “she got wiser every time you lied, sobered up every time you got drunk… she pulled a little bit further away every time you walked out the door; no, you can’t break a woman who don’t love you anymore…she ain’t waiting on pins and needles for you to come home.” And there’s the release of “Happy People,” with its grounded and realistic sentiments of choosing to be happy.

In addition to the real perfection in each song’s tale, McKenna also pulls off the coveted feat of creating a holistic album that people will automatically be inclined to listen to in its entirety. Although her songwriting, lyrics and vocals are obviously her superlative strength, the music throughout is perfect in its alternation between gravely respectful, and then light and springy, accompaniment. Dave Cobb produced this album, and contributed both acoustic and electric guitar, along with his RCA Studio – A team rhythm section Brian Allen and Chris Powell. [For more about Dave Cobb, read our conversation with him by clicking any of these bolded words right here.] Cobb once again succeeds in doing what he does best: highlighting the artist’s individual voice and strengths. Kristen Rogers, Natalie Hemby, and Hillary Lindsey contribute background vocals, and Anderson East pitched in on “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s.”

This album is undoubtedly destined to be on the top of the multiple album lists and charts for 2018, and personally will remain in permanent rotation here. Run, don’t walk, to get your copy, here.

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