Country music fans are notoriously unforgiving of artists who step outside of the narrow, pre-approved box they’ve been placed in. In the past year, even left-of-center acts like Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price have taken more than their share of heat simply for making the music they’ve wanted to make. They did it anyway. Likewise, Elizabeth Cook, who’s always faced the world with an “I don’t give a f@ck” attitude, stretches well beyond her Nashville-based roots on her new album, Aftermath. It’s a big statement, both professionally and personally, of absolute independence.
The album starts off with a howl of an opener, “Bones.” The song is a tribute to Cook’s late parents – “I wear your bones around my neck” is a reference to a bit of their ashes she carries with her – but also an assurance that she’ll continue to soldier on with them always on her mind – “I am the keeper of the flame/Yes it’s true I’ve been a wreck/But I love you just the same.” The music is loud, brash and pulsing – producer Butch Walker swings for the fences with a big sound and vocal effects, and that, along with Cook’s punchy delivery, helps create one of the coolest opening tracks I’ve heard this year.
“Perfect Girls of Pop,” the first single off Aftermath, finds Cook empathizing with young female singers who haven’t been uncaged – “But you freak into a calm ‘cause you gotta pick a team” – while also proudly maintaining her own outside status – “Just because I think about her don’t mean I hate her.” Cook saves her contempt for the process of manufacturing these fleeting starlets, heard best on her Intentionally overly-saccharine-ized delivery on “They sing sweeeeeetly.”
Like many of the songs on the record, “Perfect Girls” balances the rough edges with a pop sheen and sonic flourishes (“effected” vocals, handclaps, etc). Butch Walker has a knack for seeing all the talent in an artist and giving them the tools to kick their sound up several notches (e.g. Suzanne Santos’ solo debut, 2017’s Ruby Red, in which the HoneyHoney frontwoman’s already-amazing voice will blow the covers off your speakers). The production, including strings and soaring choruses, adds extra emotion to “Daddy, I Got Love For You,” Cook’s goodbye to her father, but the gut-punch lies in lines like “And you got time that ain’t worth killin’.”
Anyone who’s familiar with Cook from her work on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country (her “Apron Strings” is the best four hours of radio in the country) knows that beyond the sass lies an artist with a deep appreciation for great songwriters. On Aftermath, this affection shows up at the very end, when Cook delivers a song paralleling John Prine’s “Jesus, The Missing Years.” As with Prine’s tune, “Mary, The Submissing Years” interprets the Bible story with a modern-ish take, with strumming an acoustic guitar and honoring Prine by alternating between speaking and singing. Written before Mr. Prine was taken from us, it ends up being the tribute we knew we needed (and wish we didn’t), For a record that begins with such a blast, it’s this sweet, sad ending that will stick with you.
Aftermath was produced by Butch Walker, mixed by John Sinclair and mastered by Whynot Jansveld. Cook wrote all of the songs on the record. Musicians on the album include Walker (acoustic and electric guitar, keys, percussion, drum machine, electric mandolin, background vocals), Herschel Van Dyke (drums, percussion), Steve Duerst (bass, percussion, background vocals), Andrew Leahey (electric guitar, background vocals), Whit Wright (steel guitar, Dobro), Aaron Embry (keys), and Patrick Warren (strings).
Order Aftermath here: https://elizabeth-cook.myshopify.com/