Mary Gauthier’s remarkable new album Rifles & Rosary Beads is the first to depart from autobiography – but it ranks alongside the best of her work and retains all of her distinctive hallmarks.
We have been following Gauthier’s career for some time, even before the song March 11, 1962 from her 2010 album The Foundling – which recounts her telephone call shortly before Christmas to her biological mother – had us sobbing. This album achieves the same level of emotional punch, and this time it’s the fourth and fifth tracks we can’t get through with dry eyes, but we’ll get to that. It can be rare (unique to Gauthier in my case) to find an artist that you connect with on such a powerful emotional level, but her ability to tell poignant universal stories that remain special to disparate audiences is central to Gauthier’s success.
The subject matter of Rifles & Rosary Beads is attitudes towards fighting for your country, and the profound sacrifices and difficulties service men and women face. Co-written with veterans and their families (the service members are listed in the credits), these are the firsthand tales of military experiences told by a songwriter with a brilliant knack for drawing her audience into often painful human stories with a combination of lyrics, music and vocals.
The album opens with Soldiering On. “I was bound to something bigger, more important than a single human life,” encapsulates why some people are willing to risk, and sometimes give their lives for their country. Told with powerful percussion accompanying guitar, it concerns the problems a soldier faces in retaining a domestic life. It’s an attention-grabbing opener that lays out one of the themes of the album, which is explored further on the third track The War After the War. “There’s landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor,” is an effective metaphor. This time, it is told from the perspective of the spouse, and the internal battles they have to face, silently. With strings accompanying and a slow pace, it’s a reflective song and a change of tempo from the foot-tapping Got Your Six.
Still on the Ride tackles the harrowing subject of survivor’s guilt: how can a soldier live on after recovering from injuries after an incident that killed a comrade? The philosophical nature of the song, using imagery of guardian angels, and a strong harmonica accompaniment, give this track its impact. The expertly-written lyrics vividly portray the thoughts, feelings and reflections of a survivor.
Still on the Ride is part of a double-bill of songs that pull on the heartstrings. For us, the track with the biggest punch is Bullet Holes in the Sky, which is about a soldier in Nashville going through conflicting feelings about the endorsement they receive from the public at a Veteran’s Day celebration. It is an intense experience, and the gentle melody, with plucked strings and effective religious imagery, will give any sensitive soul a beautifully cathartic experience.
Brothers has a faster beat and takes us into the world of women who fight for their country, and the way in which they have to try twice as hard as men for both acceptance and recognition. “You raised a flag for the men who served, what about the women, what do we deserve?” It’s an important question to ask and finds a welcome voice here.
The title track brings us back to a slower place, and the return of the well-used harmonica. How do soldiers cope with the devastation their profession and their calling sometimes requires they cause? Painkillers, faith… there are comforts that help us all (soldiers or otherwise) live with our checkered histories. The theme returns in Morphine 1-2, which is another angle on survivor’s guilt.
It’s Her Love is a specific story about what gets one soldier through her harrowing times on the battlefield – the love of his wife. Slow in tempo, with aching strings, it’s a love song from an original perspective. The penultimate song, Iraq, takes a little work to discover its meaning, but it’s an appalling experience had by a female army mechanic. Stronger Together rounds out the album with a perspective from the wives of bomb disposal soldiers, who cope with the uncertainty of seeing their men again each time they say goodbye.
Rifles And Rosary Beads is a perfectly-structured album. The songs are distinctive, but they fit together to give differing but rounded perspectives on the human consequences of war as well as insight into the psychology of service men and women.
This is the product of a world class singer-songwriter with a strong voice, compassion and plenty to say. Rifles & Rosary Beads is an incredible collection of songs that deserve to be played again and again. This album will live with you and call you back the same way as any other in Gauthier’s catalogue.
Track Listing: 1. Soldiering On 2. Got Your Six 3. The War After the War 4. Still on the Ride 5. Bullet Holes in the Sky 6. Brothers 7. Rifles & Rosary Beads 8. Morphine 1-2 9. It’s Her Love 10. Iraq 11. Stronger Together Record label: Proper Records Release date: 26th January 2018