What is it good for?

Even for an artist as ready to challenge as Mary Gauthier this one feels like a biggie.

“Rifles And Rosary Beads” is first and foremost a brilliant Americana record, but it is so much more. The 11 songs here are written with current and ex-servicemen and women and their families. The result is not the triumphalist chest beating bravado that they might have been either. No punches are pulled, and the results are often harrowing, thought-provoking and poignant.

It is a record that is as musically varied as the stories it tells. “Soldiering On” for example, builds to a big country rock sound, drums pound as Gauthier – who in the past has written about her adoption and addiction struggles turns the thoughts of the soldier concerned into gold: “what saves you in the battle can kill you at home” she sings and very much that becomes a theme for the whole record.

“Got Your Six” is strikingly different, a dark throb, a soulful hum, but it is no less compelling, dealing as it does with the horrors on the battlefield itself., but it is when “…Beads” deals with the horrors at home it really scores.

There is a mournful feel about the violin that ushers in “The War After The War”. The testimony from the wife who says: “there’s landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor,” is particularly jarring.

The harmonica driven “Still On The Ride” deals with the guilt of one who survived an attack, and is another cut with prominent drums, as if to represent the heartbeat, not just of the song, but perhaps beyond.

“Bullet Holes In The Sky” is the tale of a god-fearing man who is at a veterans day event, and Gauthier’s lugubrious style is perfect here, but this is a record – and an artist more to the point – who wasn’t ever going to stick to the script.

“Brothers” is one of a couple written from the perspective of female service personnel. There is a grim insistence about the music too, as the woman concerned feels left out, but it – and everything else here – has to defer politely to the quite astonishing “Iraq”. Ostensibly a classic singer-songwriter affair,  but the woman concerned is sexually abused by male troop members.

Elsewhere, the title track is so fragile it feels like it could smash at any point, “Morphine 1-2” has a haunting piano sound, and the acoustic “It’s Her Love” is a beautifully touching exploration of a husband and wife’s bond, while it finishes with the tremendously stoic “Stronger Together” which manages to be something of  a singalong despite the grim subject matter.

Mary Gauthier’s stories are already taught in schools. Anyone looking to see why gung-ho warmongers in any country need to be reined in would do a lot worse than learn the lessons from those who know here. Easy listening and God Bless America bullshit this is not, it is a work of supreme skill from a brilliantly gifted songwriter. “Rifles And Rosary Beads” may stand alone as perhaps her finest work to date.

Rating 9/10


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