By Richard Marcus
There are some albums which are simply collections of songs, while others are more closely likened to collections of emotional states of mind. H C McEntire’s Every Acre (out now, Merge Records) definitely falls into the latter camp. Musically and lyrically, she creates beautiful and empathic soundscapes that explore her state of mind and connection to the surrounding environment.
Listening to the lyrics, and feeling their deeper meanings, it’s easy to see why McEntire evokes the names of Ada Limon, former US Poet Laureate, and poets Dorianne Laux, Wendell Berry, and Sharon Olds, in the album’s opening track, “New View.” Well beyond merely inspiring thoughts and images, McEntire, like all good poets, will have your mind chasing elusive ideas down the rabbit holes of your imaginatio
There are poets who set their songs to music, but it’s rare to find a musician who can actually utilize both the music of their songs and the lyrics to create a type of sonic poetry. Each of the songs on Every Acre, however, complement one another to the extent that you can’t really imagine one existing without the other.
There’s a grittiness to the music and the lyrics that keeps them firmly grounded. McEntire’s choice to incorporate coarse electric guitar passages on various tracks ensures you won’t fall into some fantastical reverie, maintaining an earthy realism that anchors Every Acre in the here and now while also (seemingly) paying tribute to Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
The wonderfully evocative “Turpentine” exemplifies this trait perfectly. While the lyrics are poetic in their imagery and their ability to send your mind down unexpected paths, (“Hallelujah turpentine!/We can tend the land for a little while/Bones of those beneath the boundary lines/East in sets first, then clockwise, clockwise“), Luke Norton’s searing guitar solo brings a sobering reality to the tune’s introspection.
While not every song references the land or the environment, the album is thematically rooted in the importance of our relationship to the earth and nature. From the land acknowledgement included in the credits, (acknowledgment of the Indigenous peoples who have been displaced from the territory the album was recorded in), to lines like those above—“We can tend the land a little while”—McEntire acknowledges our impermanence when it comes to the stewardship of territories we claim as our own.
Even in songs not directly about this subject, “New View” and “Rows of Clover” for instance, McEntire uses imagery from the natural world to deepen our appreciation of the subject matter. In the former she sings “Bend me and break me/Split me right in two/Mend me and make me/I’ll take more of you/In the high hunter’s moon.” These lines are as beautiful an expression of surrender to love as I’ve ever heard in a contemporary song. Not only do they show a willingness to put oneself entirely in the hands of your lover, but the wildness implied in the “high hunter’s moon” suggests an understanding of the risks involved. She captures both sides, the fear and the ecstasy, of the what it feels like to surrender to love with that sharp and lonely image.
Throughout Every Acre, McEntire avoids sentimentality, instead choosing to take listeners into the heart of the matter with words that carry heavy resonance. In “Rows of Clover” she ponders the intensity of grief with a poetically straightforward choice of words that underscores her gift. “It ain’t the easy/Kind of healing/When you’re down on your knees/Clawing at the garden.” We can’t help imagining the singer’s frame hunched over the earth and rending the ground with fingers that grief has curled into claws. It’s a penetrating image that tells us of a lasting, transformative grief.
McEntire and Norton collaborated on Every Acre, creating tracks that avoid unnecessary adornment and leave plenty of room for the listener; her voice is the storyteller, but remains mixed as an instrument. Raw and strong with the power of the earth, she can also sing as soothingly as the sound of the breeze wafting through spring branches, communicating on visceral levels. It’s no small feat. When joined by S.G. Goodman (“Shadows”) and Amy Ray (“Turpentine”), the vocal performances blend and complement one another in their understated presence—there is no showboating, no declaration of arrival.
Every Acre is Americana of the highest order. McEntire has reached deep, bringing forth incredible poetry while making sure that the songs don’t overpower. Emotionally, it’s a harrowing ride… but there’s plenty of room for us in these tracks and the textures are so gorgeous, you’ll be hard pressed to resist tagging along.
Richard Marcus has been writing about music, films, and books since 2005. He’s published three books commissioned by Ulysses Press. He currently edits the Books section at Blogcritics.org and is a regular contributor to Qantara.de. He lives in Kingston, Ontario Canada with his feral accomplice and their cat.