Courtney Marie Andrews | Old Flowers | (Fat Possum)
4 out of 5 stars
“Breaking up is hard to do,” sang Neil Sedaka on his chirpy top-charting 1962 hit. And thousands, probably tens of thousands, of songs later those words still ring true. Just ask singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews.
She’s under no illusions that the “breakup album” and tunes about the fallout of a romance are something of a cliché. Andrews says as much in the promotional notes to her new album admitting “There are a million records and songs about that, but I did not lie when writing these songs.” And while opening up your most sensitive and personal feelings to the public may be therapeutic for both the writer and the listener, the concept can devolve into cloying self-pity or result in classic, timeless work (see Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks).
These ten tracks recapping the highs, lows and devastating end to a nine year relationship find Andrews at her most vulnerable but also most poetic. Just glancing at titles such as “Together or Alone,” “Break the Spell,” “How You Get Hurt” and “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” lays out the Old Flowers concept without having to hear a word.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there aren’t many musically upbeat moments within the disc’s 42 minutes. But as Andrews has proven on her six previous releases, she has an easy, almost effortless way with both words and melody. From the waltz time of the opening “Burlap String” (“Some days are good, some are bad/
Some days I want what we had”) to the spare, stripped down, percussion free folk of the closing “Ships in the Night” (“I know you tried to reach me, I know you tried/I know we felt the same way, but the timing wasn’t right”), there isn’t an extra note or unconvincing vocal. There are also times as in the hushed “Break the Spell” where Andrews sings “Why, why do I believe/Each and every trick you have hiding up your sleeve?” where her voice is so exposed and honest that it’s almost difficult to listen to. That’s especially the case on “Carnival Dream” as she sings “I may never let love in again” raising the intensity with each repetition of the sentence against an ominous militarist snare drum.
Despite the downbeat topic and overall melancholy mood, Andrews crafts these songs with subtle yet hooky choruses that feel fresh and alive. Her piano work is both bold and sensitive in a Bruce Hornsby-like way and feels determined throughout, especially on the title track when she sings “I’m alone now/but I don’t feel alone.” Her voice is rich, pure and often stunning in its openness, especially with words that are this heartfelt.
You’ll be drawn into the artist’s love life through the sheer musicality of these recordings, regardless of whether you can identify with her exact circumstances. That’s the mark of an effective songwriter. Old Flowers conclusively proves that Courtney Marie Andrews has reached a difficult to attain level, showing once again that the timeworn trope of “breaking up is hard to do” can be dreadfully unsettling personally but also creatively rewarding.