Since her commercial and artistic peak with 1992's Come On, Come On, Mary Chapin Carpenter has more or less been rewriting and rerecording the same album of introspective NPR and AAA playlist-ready songs with uneven results. For every stellar album like Stones in the Road or Time* Sex* Love* that shared some of the fire and vision of her earlier work, she's released a dull collection like her latest, The Age of Miracles. For an album that was inspired by a significant health scare, Miracles is a surprisingly lifeless set.
Carpenter's early albums balanced her folkier tendencies with inspired elements of contemporary country and pop. But on Miracles, she and co-producer Matt Rollings rarely stray from a pedestrian, coffeehouse blend of hushed acoustic strumming. Songs like "We Traveled So Far," "I Was a Bird," and "I Have a Need for Solitude" run together as though afraid to impose themselves, resulting in an album that seems a great deal longer than it really is. Those songs are all fine enough for what they are, but they don't offer any significant variations on the meditations on love and aging that Carpenter has released for the better part of two decades.
The songs that look outward for inspiration are also a mixed bag. The lilting ballad "Mrs. Hemingway" is easily the album's best-written song, with Carpenter adopting the voice of Ernest Hemingway's first wife at the tipping point of their ill-fated relationship. "4 June 1989," from the point of view of activist Chen Guang, fares less well, squandering its fascinating premise and perspective with didactic lines like, "Before I held a rifle, I held an artist's brush/Before Tiananmen, I even dreamed of love." The allusions to the Jena Six and Hurricane Katrina on the title track are subtler, and they give weight to the song's greater message of optimism and grace.
That the title track also has a strong pulse helps to make it a standout. Carpenter has always been at her best when she channels her fierce intelligence and wit into songs with energy and forward momentum: For doing precisely that, "The Way I Feel" and "I Put My Ring Back On" are the highlights of the album. The former finds Carpenter leaving a relationship in which she felt overlooked, while the latter looks for redemption in a rekindled marriage. If country radio still regularly played music by women over 40, "Ring" could make for Carpenter's first hit in ages. It's just a shame that the rest of Miracles doesn't command the same degree of devotion.