Lori McKenna – ‘1988’ album review

It’s safe to say that Lori McKenna is a Nashville songwriting legend. She has written hits for just about anyone in country music, including Taylor Swift. However, she is an artist in her own right, releasing her debut record ‘Paper Wings and Halo’ in 2000, before gaining critical acclaim with ‘The Bird and the Rifle’ in 2016. Now she’s back with her 12th studio album ‘1988’ – a follow-up to 2020’s ‘The Balladeer’ and named after the year she married husband Gene.

The 10-track project opens with ‘The Old Woman In Me’ as McKenna looks back at her life from the perspective of her former self. A bright, swinging number like ‘Kiss’ has a lovely nostalgic quality, a cheeky, playful touch. [ing her husband] Every time a child enters – and a chorus of great hope. What I love about it is the warmth and slight pull and crunch to the actual feel of the song, as well as her trademark storytelling and lyrical skills, especially in the last verse where she sees herself ‘sitting on the front porch swinging while her grandkids play’. It sounds like a great way to start the record and really showcases McKenna’s ability to take something so universal and make it so personal.

When I spoke with Lori recently about the album, she said she wanted it to have a ’90s rock feel, and that shines through throughout the project. ‘Happy Children’, the most recent single released, captures that sound perfectly and will have you rocking and putting your lights in the air. McKenna combines that well with wise-advised lyrics, especially on the chorus, which makes her a raunchy cousin like ‘Humble and Kind’ (which she wrote for Tim McGraw). Elsewhere, the romantic ‘Days Are Honey’ has a great enduring quality to it and a great singalong chorus and punchy bridge, and it’s full of love and romance as he realizes that staying in a relationship takes work (‘Take a picture, change the frame, it’s better in hindsight’).

However, there is still plenty for fans of McKenna’s previous albums to enjoy as well. Her collaboration with Love Junkies co-writer Hilary Lindsay, ‘The Killing’, has a nice driving feel that contrasts the darker tones of the lyrics as well as some lovely Mamas and Papas-esque harmonies. Meanwhile, the acoustic title track is super country-sounding as McKenna sings about how ‘these storms keep us from being air’ as she and her husband deal with the ups and downs of their marriage, while the heartwarming ‘The Town In Your Heart’ features an Eagles-esque guitar riff and drum beat with McKenna pulling your song to ‘bleed and sing’. It does. The only western film hears her struggling to face her flaws and not wanting to disappoint the people she cares about with clear voices.

One of the highlights of the record for me is ‘Wonder Medicine’. It’s an intimate portrait of dealing with the loss of a loved one and mental health issues, starting with a nostalgic feel before moving into a 70s-sounding, cinematic feel. When she sings about letting go of a dream (‘How dare you leave me’), and you can feel her anger beneath the surface, but the subdued tone makes it carry more weight and power. On a different note, I loved the detail-packed ‘Growing Up’ with Barbie clothes in a Crown Royal bag, Oprah on the big TV and Dairy Queen in the back seats (which later reappears in ‘The Town In Your Heart’). There’s a bright, fun, rolling feel about it before the bitter bitterness in the bridge, and it’s a real testament to McKenna for creating a clear outline and narrative that’s so easy to relate to.

McKenna closes the album with ‘The Tunnel’. She immediately puts you in the song’s setting, referencing street names and the ‘smell of summer water’, before talking about ‘things you learn in middle school but don’t in class’, looking back at a childhood friend who still has many struggles in her life. When McKenna delivers the song, you feel a sense of helplessness – she’s naturally good at bringing those feelings to the surface in her writing – and the huge bridge that sounds like gospel saves it from descending into despair.

All in all, Lori McKenna has produced an album of the year that is sure to win as many accolades and accolades as her previous efforts, paying tribute to her amazing songwriting skills and abilities as a storyteller and musically inspired 90s rock ladies. It’s fun to see that different side of her, but it shows that she’s still at the top of her game lyrically, and I can’t wait to see how this feeds into her future projects – whether it’s solo or work for other artists. In the meantime, we hope she makes it to the UK soon and hear some of these tracks live.

Track List: 1. The Old Woman Inside Me 2. Happy Children 3. Killing Me (Featuring Hilary Lindsay) 4. Days Are Honey 5. 1988 6. Growing Up 7. Wonder Medicine 8. The City In Your Heart 9. Letting People Go 10. The Cave Record ID: CN Records / Thirty Tigers Official date: July 21, 2023

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