By all rights, Matraca Berg should be one of the biggest stars in country music: She’s been one of the genre’s finest and most successful songwriters for more than two decades now, and she’s blessed with cover-girl good looks and a strong, distinctive alto. But Nashville has never been a meritocracy, and Berg’s latest, The Dreaming Fields, is her first full studio album in an entirely-too-long 14 years. Though a great deal has changed about country music during that span, The Dreaming Fields is as excellent as Berg’s albums have always been, and it makes for a most welcome return.
Berg’s immediately identifiable songwriting, which is built on evocative melodies, lived-in emotional conflicts, and clever observations and turns of phrase, puts her in the company of country music’s most influential writers. The title track, a somber and simply gorgeous meditation on the loss of a family farm, is perhaps the most accomplished song in her extensive catalogue, while “Oh, Cumberland” impresses for its fully-realized sense of longing for a particular, distant locale.
The album trades in matters of physical and emotional displacement. The Beatles-inspired ballad that closes the record, “A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June,” finds Berg comparing herself to a postcard as the simple piano arrangement bounces along a wistful melody. “If I Had Wings,” which makes only the most subtle of references to the narrator’s physical abuse, is an effective call for escape from a relationship that has long since run its course, while “Racing the Angels” builds to a bluesy climax on which Berg addresses someone who has passed away. Each song on The Dreaming Fields draws its conflict in unflinching, first-person details, and though Berg writes of a wide range of experiences and protagonists, every song emerges as a guarded question about what comes next.
That kind of broad, thematic focus is rare for a country album, but Berg is a rare talent. Though it wouldn’t really be fair to compare her reading of the title track to the one from Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love, given that it isn’t fair to compare much of anyone to at-peak Yearwood, Berg’s vocal performances on the album are uniformly exceptional. The way she lapses into her upper register on the refrain of “Racing the Angels” is especially effective, as is her wry portrayal of the scorned woman in “Your Husband’s Cheating On Us.”
If there’s a knock against the album, it’s that it settles into a midtempo shuffle that could use more variety. Berg has more than enough personality as a vocalist to sell an uptempo track (her bawdy “Back in the Saddle” is one of the best country singles of the ‘90s), but as producer of the album, she keeps the tone of the record more reserved. While it’s easy to miss the occasional flash of wiseass wit from her earlier albums, it’s clear that Berg understands the relationship between the production and content of a song. It’s that insightful, intelligent approach to country music that makes Berg such a treasure and The Dreaming Fields such a first-rate country record.