Gretchen Peters perfectly knows how to interweave the personal and the universal

A masterpiece!?
Time will tell, but at the moment I seriously believe that Dancing with the beast by American singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters is a masterpiece. An all time classic.

Gretchen Peters - Dancing With The Beast | Roots | Written in Music

Striking lyrics
I did not find that immediately when that record appeared in mid-May. Of course, I knew Gretchen Peters and had once described Hello cruel world from 2012 as her best cd and my ‘album of the year’. But miracles happen occasionally. Do artists surpass themselves? Could her new record become an all time classic?

But not for everyone.

I suspect die-hard reggae fans, die-hard metal fans and fusion lovers will not fall for it. They simply will not bother to listen to this record. Does not fit in their bubble. Conversely, this also applies to people who love America, folk, country & western and singer-songwriters.

But anyone who appreciates songs with (very) special texts should listen to this CD. I think it’s likely that you might draw the same conclusion: a masterpiece.

The beast
As a Gretchen Peters follower and fan I bought her newest CD without being noticed.

I knew what she could and what I would have to wait for. But at first Dancing with the beast was disappointing. Only after a month or so did the proverbial penny begin to fall. That was not only due to the fact that we were in the middle of a renovation at home (so that the sound equipment could not be used often), but especially with the fact that I only get hold of CD-books for the texts, as at a certain moment a particular line sticks in my head.

A sentence with a special power of expression. After which you search for the whole text. And must come to the conclusion that it is a masterly text and song. That song was Truckstop angel, the eighth song.

I swallow their indifference
But I choke on my regrets

Truckstop angel is clearly about a hooker. Simple words. A simple ‘story’, but written down very nicely and empathetically. At the beginning of June, I already included this song in two articles about something completely different: Mensenbieb: Luister naar mij en ik vertel je waarom ik anders ben dan jij en Wreed.

Truckstop angel is basically a song about people who, despite the misery they are in, still seem to believe that one day it will be ‘good’.

One day I’m gonna leave here
Gonna hit my lucky streak
Gonna spread my gorgeous wings
And fly above all this concrete

Dancing with the beast
Gretchen Peters is (as everyone can know who follows her via Twitter) very socially involved. She is very concerned about what is happening in ‘her’ United States at the moment. Is as a woman also alert to #MeToo-like things.

At Dancing with the beast, women are the focus of all eleven songs. Who often experience something unpleasant. Women as victims of the ‘system’. Women in vulnerable positions. But Gretchen is not pathetic. She doesn’t want to whine.

“Her” women are strong. Try to make the best of it despite everything. Fight ‘the beast’. And it is up to the listener to determine where such a beast stands for in a particular song. In the title track, the beast is obviously what is “chasing” people who are victims of a burn-out or a (severe) depression.

At the same time, Gretchen Peters also knows that it is often an illusion to think that you can withdraw yourself from (unpleasant) circumstances. The American dream is – in her eyes – one big lie. Perhaps it was once; in a mythical past. Shortly after the Second World War; until roughly the mid-seventies. But for the majority of the American middle class, the story of that dream has become a big lie. And many are reasonably apathetic in their fate.

Gretchen Peters - Hello Cruel World | Roots | Written in Music

The top issue of Hello cruel world (that top record from 2012) is consistent with the notion that people are almost always the ‘victim’ of the circumstances.

In this partly autobiographical song a young girl is sitting in the back seat of a car. In the front are her father and mother. The radio is on. But mother hardly listens. She is lost in thought. Busy with her own thoughts and worries. Thinks about her bad marriage. And that girl in the back already knows that it will end badly: “We are a family, we are a shipwreck.” And in the meantime that young child listens to the radio and the bickering in the front.

It is a special evening. That day JFK was murdered and on the radio it is about that. November 1963. Gretchen is from November 1957. Later in the song it is about big ‘things’. The insight that ‘man’ is not at the helm of himself. And to the question Who’s in control? we must inexorably come to answer that we are not. Emotions are active in us that prevent us from making (mostly) rational decisions. Doing what is ‘the best’ for ourselves and the environment. In the last verse she passes this insight to ‘the world’. We humans often make a mess with all our minds and cleverness. Idlewild is a place near New York. A place where the airfield of the same name used to be situated; now it is called John F. Kennedy airport. (Artikel: But I know we’re drifting – februari 2012) The crucial lines are, in my opinion:

They think we’re driving,
but I know we’re drifting

Jeisa Márjorie II (jeisamarjoriego) no Pinterest

The boys from Rye
Dancing with the beast is not just a matter of trouble and ailment. The third song – The boys from Rye – has something bittersweet about it. Is about a couple of adolescent girls in a seaside resort. Where summer tourists come.

In this song a couple with son and daughter come to sun and sea. A whole summer long. And all girls around fourteen years old all fall for that boy. Imagine themselves in an imaginary row. To be checked by him and perhaps timidly touched. And that boy is cruel. Does not bind anyone, at least not to the anonymous main character in this song.

The narrator sees it from a distance, was also in that row, but had it through at some point. But in spite of everything: years later she remembered that summer and feelings that she did not know how to handle. Falling in love for the first time. Boys who are interested in the other sex. And how cruel some men set up, behave.

She knows better later on. Although she does not express itself explicitly about it. Only to hint. Great how Gretchen Peters can put something into words. And how the surrounding musicians color her piano ballad with their instruments. Her partner, Barry Walsh, is playing the piano.

Our parents dozed after tennis and a swim
And disappeared into their gin and tonics
And there we were, alone with him
His smile knowing and ironic

The same bittersweet melancholy is also found in Winnsboro, Louisiana by David Forman. From 1976. Article: Empatie in 3 liedjes (July 2013)

No, this song is not about the Netherlands and certainly not about the festival of the same name. Lowlands is a word that Gretchen has devised for the Heartland. That is a word that is stuck on American states lying in the middle of the country. States in which there is often a conservative vote and most people are not very rich. During the last presidential elections Hillary Clinton made a big mistake by putting these people away as a basket or deplorables. Poor people who do not understand that a large part of their misery lies with themselves. They have been supporting politicians for decades who pursue policies that are at odds with their own interests. Hillary had no idea  that her democratic party is not being trusted by people on the edge of society and by many members of a declining middle class. And till this day not much has changed.

But what does Gretchen Peters do then? In Lowlands she introduces a woman who understands that poor ‘losers’ like themselves are indeed victims of a society that does everything to make their misery even bigger. She is not doing what Hillary did. On the contrary. She is on their side. Again a woman. Probably black or latino. Is looked at by her redneck neighbor – whipped by Fox and Breitbart.

 Ever since he put that sticker on his bumper
I just turn out the lights and lock the doors

She thanks God on her knees that she has a job. It does not mean much. Is heavy and dirty and poorly paid. But she has something fixed:

Me I’m thankful for this work that keeps me honest
My hands get dirty but my soul stays clean

But she is not stupid. Has a perfect eye on what kind of world she lives in. Sees how bad the world is and that politicians will not save her. Rather the opposite. Donald Trump is not mentioned, but Gretchen grabs him in this song. Very sharp. Puts him away as a liar who throws words (i.e. kerosene) all over the place to stoke up already existing social contradictions. Together with media that as drama queens pull out all the stops to keep people hooked to silver the screen.

And the tv it just lies to keep you watching
Politician lies to get your vote
But a man who lies just for the sake of lying
He’ll sell you kerosene and call it hope

In a different prize number she introduces a twelve-year-old girl from Wichita. From Arkansas, in the Heartland. Cora-Lee, a stupid girl. But she does have the heart in the right place:

I may not know too much – I may not be too smart
There may be something wrong with my head, but not my heart.

This Cora-Lee protects her much smarter sister from (big?) misfortune. What that is is not really clear, but Gretchen shows that this so-called stupid weight is not stupid. Very worldly. Stands up for herself and her family. Cora-Lee also knows that the police in her neighborhood are not on the side of her and her family.

I could’ve called the cops – and told em what you did
But who’s gonna listen to a story from a stupid kid
Mama always told me if you want something done
You do it for yourself and so I loaded up her gun
And i was steady on the draw that night in Wichita
Yeah, I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita

A milestone?
In March 2012 pop journalist Herman van der Horst wrote in Lust for Life the following about Hello cruel world:

She herself describes Hello cruel world as her manifesto and there is no word of it. Eleven compelling songs that explore the human weaknesses with great subtlety, honesty and pure emotion.
With great care framed by a bunch of top musicians, without it becoming slippery. Peters dissects her characters with a fillet knife and knows how to seamlessly interweave the personal and the universal. As in the masterful Idlewild, a story about the loss of her own innocence and that of America. () Hello cruel world is not only her best record, it can easily be called a milestone.

This analysis is still correct and can be extended straight to Dancing with the beast. I believe at this moment that her latest album in the long run will prove to be her ‘best’. And I will not stand alone in that. But, again: only time will tell.

On her website you can listen to Dancing with the beast and read the lyrics.

On Sunday 2 September 2018 she will perform live in Arnhem in Luxor.

(Tuesday, July 10, 2018)

Door Hans van Duijnhoven

Bibliothecaris sinds september 1979. Werkzaam in de regio Noord Oost Brabant.

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