BY LESLEY HASTINGS
Named after the year Lori married her teen sweetheart Gene (they still live just outside Boston, where they grew up, and have five children) “1988” released last Friday via CN Records/Thirty Tigers finds Lori McKenna pondering family, friendships, small town living and the ups and downs of life in her own inimitable way across its ten tracks. Introspection and reflection, thankfulness and frustration, make this another very personal release from Lori, but one which will no doubt resonate with the listener somewhere, somehow. Even if, like me, the path their own life has taken ostensibly has very little in common with Lori’s.
She told producer Dave Cobb that she wanted it to be her version of a rock record, but don’t worry she hasn’t gone full on AC/DC on us! However there’s definitely more electric guitar (Cobb) and drums (Chris Powell ) coming through in the arrangements giving an enhanced energy and punchier sound to several tracks while letting the insightful lyrics and Lori’s edgy vocals still remain centre stage .
Equally comfortable solo or co-writing which seems to be a rarity these days, among the writing credits are some of Lori’s long-established collaborators which of course comes as no surprise (fellow Love Junkie, Hillary Lindsey, also adds vocals to their co-write “Killing Me”) but this time around there are also writes with two of her sons and with Stephen Wilson Jnr…… Lori told me in our recent interview how much she loves getting to work with and learn from new people (interview link below) .
Although the majority of the tracks are retrospective in nature, “1988” opens with a couple which see Lori looking ahead. “The Old Woman In Me” sets out her hopes for her future self, including being “a no-regretter, yeah a good forgiver“ and I particularly love its serene ending which paints a beautiful scene. “Happy Children” focuses on her wishes for her kids which are multiple but most importantly she tells them “if you only get one thing that’s a given I hope you have happy children”.
Next we have the afore mentioned “Killing Me” which is one of the most introspective tracks, and I particularly like the frustration that Lori conveys in her vocal delivery as she wrestles with the negative thoughts in her mind that seem to overpower happiness and positivity. A great example here too of the rockier, driving drum arrangements on the album. But the lyrics could equally be applied to a friendship or relationship that’s dragging the other person down; it’s an incredible song that is definitely open to different interpretations.
The following two tracks celebrate Lori and Gene’s married life, with “Days Are Honey” focusing on the highs and lows of an enduring relationship, or as Lori puts it so beautifully “some days are broke, some days are money, some days are dirt, some days are honey”. I love the pearl of wisdom offered up when she says that “ It gets better when you’re looking back on it”, I think most of us have situations in our lives that line can be applied to!
The album’s title track follows (the track order is so good!), with “1988” being Lori’s love letter to her husband. As on the preceding track she points out things weren’t always easy, ”overtime and bills we couldn’t pay, One on the hip and one on the way” but there’s no regrets and she thanks God for bringing them together.
Things get a lot heavier subject-wise on the second half of the album (side B when you flip the vinyl version) starting with “Growing Up” which is about exactly that, specifically putting the carefree days behind you and facing up to the harsher realities of life. “No one tells you it will be this tough ,this tough, growing up”.
One of those harsh realities is the focus of “Wonder Drug”, in which Lori berates herself for not being able to stop a friend and potential life – partner’s downward spiral into drug addiction …. “I wasn’t paying attention when the roof was steady, the walls came in, blue collar life and all its weight, I was right there and I was too late”.
The theme of losing someone you love is further explored in “The Town In Your Heart“ which also lends its name to Lori’s current US tour. One of the more uptempo tracks on the album, Lori says of the song “Dustin Christensen, Jessie Jo Dillon and I wrote this song about losing someone, about keeping them in a different way, and about hoping they keep us too”.
As if Lori hasn’t been hard enough on herself already across several of the album’s tracks, we find her beating herself up again in the penultimate song “Letting People Down”, an introspective solo write about the impact of her chosen career path on her family. In particular she acknowledges the sacrifices her loved ones have made along the way, “The arms of those angels are wrapped around the dreams you left“ . While her life is a blessing, it’s equally “all so damn hard”. Heavy stuff indeed.
Bringing the album to a close, “The Tunnel” has Lori and her co-writers reminiscing about a close childhood friendship, painting the most vivid of pictures along the way, and wondering how two lives who start off on such a similar path, can turn out so differently. In a similar vein to Tenille Townes in “Somebody’s Daughter “ Lori ponders “ I don’t know how it works or how God picks who gets to get through” after yet again apportioning some of the blame on herself for not doing anything to help. But the song (and album!) ends in the most uplifting, positive way as she reassure her friend that although “a lot of life’s been mostly the tunnel for you, there’s a light at the end” .
Do yourselves a favour, find time in your no doubt hectic life to really listen to “1988” top to bottom, it’s an album that deserves your full attention and if you’re like me you’ll have it on repeat and hear something new each time. I’m sure Lori and her band will be having the best time rocking out these these songs live on the road, elevating them to a whole new level if that is possible. Let’s hope they rock their way over to the UK sometime soon.
1988 TRACK LIST
1. The Old Woman in Me ( Lori McKenna)
2. Happy Children (Lori McKenna, Chris McKenna)
3. Killing Me feat. Hillary Lindsey (Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird)
4. Days Are Honey ( Lori McKenna, Barry Dean, Luke Laird)
5. 1988 ( Lori McKenna, Brian McKenna)
6. Growing Up ( Lori McKenna)
7. Wonder Drug ( Lori McKenna)
8. The Town in Your Heart ( Lori McKenna, Jessie Jo Dillon, Dustin Christensen)
9. Letting People Down ( Lori McKenna)
10. The Tunnel ( Lori McKenna, Ben West, Stephen Wilson Jr)
Stream/Download “ 1988” here https://orcd.co/1988
Read our interview with Lori here https://countrylowdown.com/2023/07/19/lori-mckenna-interview/