Stoughton’s Lori McKenna has become one of country’s most hailed songwriters in the past few years, penning the green-eyed-monster chronicle “Girl Crush” for the vocal quartet Little Big Town and the gently instructive “Humble and Kind” for Tim McGraw. On her 11th album, “The Tree,” McKenna shows how her songwriting is driven by detail and empathy; she populates her music with characters plucked from everyday life, driven by worries and hopes that are specific yet universal.
“The Tree” is rooted in the highs and lows of domesticity from its opening chords. “A Mother Never Rests,” which McKenna penned with songsmith Barry Dean, is a richly realized portrait of the neuroses that come along with the job of motherhood — “She bit her lip and didn’t cry the day your hatchback left/ And when you hurt she hurts, that’s how it is,” McKenna sings over her band’s gentle sway, bringing into sharp focus just a few of those moments when the maternal bond can cause pain on both sides. “The Fixer” paints depression and its effects in impressionistic colors, playing off the similarities between “fixer” and “fix her” to illustrate those heartbreaking instants when a couple’s gaps in communication become chasms. “Young and Angry Again,” a co-write with Dean and songwriter Luke Laird, looks back at the time before the workaday challenges of adulthood become one’s norm, McKenna singing of channeling her “heart full of fire and gasoline” past into her present-day self over shuffling chords.
Producer Dave Cobb, who was also behind the boards on McKenna’s 2016 album, “The Bird and the Rifle,” offers a light touch here, letting McKenna’s robust alto and finely wrought words take center stage. It’s most apparent on “You Can’t Break a Woman,” which McKenna co-wrote with “Girl Crush” collaborators Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose; the momentum toward its main character getting completely fed up builds slowly, McKenna’s voice becoming more assured as she reiterates, over and over, that the drinking and cheating ways that once resulted in “wasted tears” had become barely worthy of mention. It never reaches a big a-ha moment, but that’s by design; instead, it reflects the weariness that creeps into one’s mind as love goes sour.
“Well, here’s what I know,” McKenna sings at the outset of “A Mother Never Rests.” The wisdom she imparts across the songs that follow is profound in its simplicity, but it still needs to be heard: McKenna’s omniscient narrators are simultaneously understanding toward their subjects and interrogating toward themselves, a generosity of spirit that, when paired with Cobb’s thoughtful, subtle arrangements, is a quiet yet welcome tonic to the current landscape.
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.