The Bird and The Rifle was far from Lori McKenna’s debut album, but it felt like one in a way. Fortunately, we live in an age during which more songwriters are gaining recognition as true artists than ever before (thanks in part to easier access to credit information). High off the success of hit singles like Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” McKenna was poised to have a big year in 2016 with her ninth studio album.
Sure enough, The Bird and The Rifle managed to gain wide critical acclaim, and on her tenth studio album, The Tree, McKenna delivers yet another high-quality album with incredible songwriting.
McKenna said prior to release day that The Tree would focus heavily on family. “I love people’s stories about their families … the way they tic and the ways we’re all crazy and love each other. I hope my songs shine a little light on that for a second. Maybe our stories remind us of our families and what they give us. It’s beautiful, and sometimes we take it for granted.”
The Tree embraces two perspectives: one shows listeners what it’s like to be an innocent kid figuring out the world, like on youthful tracks “Young And Angry Again” and “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s.”
The other perspective, which arguably takes the dominant role on this album, shows listeners what it’s like to grow up, watch the world change and most importantly, take care of those innocent kids we all used to be. McKenna offers sage advice on the touching “The Way Back Home,” and “A Mother Never Rests” is a relatable ode to motherhood.
Of course, those two perspectives also collide more than once on this album, such as on “People Get Old” – even though the father and daughter are seemingly worlds apart, they’re not all that different in the long run, something the daughter realizes as she herself grows older. That realization is expanded upon in the title track, making use of the metaphor “the apple never falls far from the tree.”
Parent-child relationships are just one aspect of family though. McKenna is clever and skilled enough as a writer to explore all facets of what “family” means. The darker strums at the beginning of “The Fixer” suggest something uneasy is underway, and sure enough, a heartbreaking narrative unfolds. We get so wrapped up in trying to please everyone with material items and even get wrapped up in our own hobbies. The greatest gift we can offer someone however is time, and unfortunately for the husband in the narrative, time has run out.
On that note, “You Can’t Break A Woman” feels somewhat like an anthem in 2018, and it’s fitting that “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone” follows it on the track listing, because it shows how far a lack of communication between family members can push someone. (Actually, the way the woman in this song flees her oppressive household would make this track a fitting follow-up to the title track from The Bird and The Rifle.)
The only misstep on the album may be “Happy People,” which, while certainly sporting better production than the Little Big Town version, also feels out of place thematically with the album.
With The Tree however, McKenna has crafted an incredible concept album that explores family through the good and bad times, therefore giving it a nuanced, grounded perspective. Cleverly enough, “A Mother Never Rests” and the closing track, “Like Patsy Would” go hand-in-hand, because they both speak to McKenna wanting to better herself. While The Tree just may be her best album yet, it wouldn’t be surprising to see McKenna evolve even further, because she’s certainly on a roll. Catch McKenna on her “The Way Back Home” tour by checking for dates here. Buy The Tree here.