Though she first made a name for herself in the mid ‘90s, when Martina McBride turned her song “Independence Day” into a modern country standard, it’s taken singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters some time to find her way as a recording artist in her own right. Not until 2007’s Burnt Toast & Offerings did Peters sound entirely comfortable in incorporating first-person details into her songwriting, but on her latest, Hello Cruel World, her writing is as uninhibited and unflinching as it is dense and poetic. The result is an album of remarkable maturity, as Peters tackles tumultuous emotional conflicts head-on.
Peters opens the album with a weary sigh, confronting her own shortcomings and mortality when she sings, “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods/And it’s getting late.” She spends the remainder of the album laying plain the extent of that damage, and she does so with an often literary flair. She invokes the story of Saint Francis to address the limitations of liberal guilt (her delivery of the line, “You want to let him in, but what will the neighbors say?” is withering), and adopts the persona of a circus performer on “Woman on the Wheel” in an attempt to explain the risk calculus involved in her relationships.
As heady and high-minded as her writing may be, Peters never becomes too deliberately obtuse or inscrutable. There’s no mystery as to what she’s referring to on “Paradise Found” when she sings, “When your need is strong and the hour is late/Baby, you got the key to my garden gate.” A song like “Natural Disaster” impresses for its plainspoken central metaphor, in which Peters compares environmental turmoil to psychological ruin. That she’s able to draw from personal experiences, having been directly impacted by both the Gulf oil spill and the historic floods in Nashville within the past year, gives the song a lived-in, authentic sense of authority.
Peters’s vocal performances are no less authoritative. She’s a wonderfully expressive singer, able to bring either a wry wit or an empathetic slant to even her most grim lyrics, giving her lines a greater degree of complexity. “Dark Angel,” a duet with Rodney Crowell, impresses for its warmth and the comfortable interplay between the two singers, and the cautious optimism in her voice tempers the violence in the imagery on “The Matador.” Peters identifies with the titular character, asking, “But who are we without the thrill,” realizing the risks that are required to find deep fulfillment. It’s in outlining those risks in such rich detail that Peters has created an album of rare insight.