Last month, Neil Young finally released Homegrown, a break-up album so painful for him that he buried it for nearly a half-century. This month, Arizona’s Courtney Marie Andrews is releasing Old Flowers, her own documenting of the very recent wreckage of a long-term relationship. Perhaps it’s the freshness of the material, or maybe it’s because it’s rendered in Andrews’ absolutely perfect voice, but this album feels more immediate than Young’s (very good) 45-year-old effort. It’s the break-up record we need in 2020, and it may be the best album of the year.
The record begins with “Burlap String,” and it’s here that the Young comparison is most apt. The tune is meandering country rock, primarily acoustic guitar, pedal steel and brushed percussion (the music on Old Flowers is primarily provided by three musicians, including Andrews, and it somehow manages to sound both achingly spare and subtly full). But when Andrews begins to sing, the words and the songs are all hers. The overall theme of the record can be found in this song – acknowledging what she’s lost (“There’s family and a house/Where the memories of us belong) while still holding onto who she is as an individual (‘Don’t wanna lose what I might find”).
The best break-up albums have one trait in common – they don’t overwhelm you with “pining” (that’s an activity more for Top 40 radio). Rather, it’s a wistfulness that inhabits many of the songs on Old Flowers. “Together or Alone” pictures a future when “I hope one day we’ll be laughing.” “Guilty” has Andrews knowing she’s in the wrong place – “When I wake up in/The morning next to him/It makes me wanna cry” – but she can’t make herself leave. “If I Told” shows how committed she was – “I’d learn to love the worst parts of you” – while wondering if that effort was returned in full – “Can you handle this world I live in?”
As much heartbreak as there is on the album, there’s not a lot of blame placed, just acknowledgement of flaws that we all have. “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” bathed in acoustic and steel, moves us years past the break-up to a point where Andrews questions her own ability to maintain a healthy relationship – “Feels like I’ve gone crazy/Like the women in my family usually do.” And the title track has her summoning the strength to push him away – “I’m not your object to break.” But you never get the sense that he’s the bad guy, nor is she. It’s simply two decent folks who couldn’t make it work. Which is both normal and devastatingly sad.
Devastating is what Old Flowers does best. “How You Get Hurt,” which may be the saddest song of a sad year, pairs Andrews’ voice with a slightly out-of-tune piano as the singer looks back on the good times with the full realization that they’re not coming back- “But maybe this distance is for the better/Until we both learn how to stay.” The title of “Carnival Dream” relates a similar dream that both Andrews and her ex experienced, but the mood of the song is anything but fanciful. And the album’s closer, “Ships in the Night,” is little more than Andrews playing a Wurlitzer as she softly, but definitively, closes out the relationship. It’s a bit abrupt, that ending. But it represents a fresh start for Andrews, and that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, we can come back and relive this sadness, most excellently delivered, anytime we’d like.
Old Flowers was produced by Andrew Sarlo, engineered by Sarlo and Branden Stroup, mixed by Sarlo and mastered by Bob Ludwig. All songs were written by Andrews. Additional musicians include Matthew Davidson (bass, vocals, celeste, pump organ, piano, pedal steel, Wurlitzer, saw, acoustic guitar and mellotron), James Krivchenia (drums, percussion, Casio, and acoustic guitar) and Andrew Sarlo (bass).
You can order Old Flowers here: https://courtneymarieandrews.store-08.com/featured/