The Dreaming Fields

Matraca Berg

Dualtone, 2011

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Welcome back, Matraca Berg.

Fourteen years after her solo last album, the author of hit songs recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire and Deana Carter has returned to the studio.  Possessed with a delicate, soulful voice that has never fit the country music industry’s preconceived image of a hit-maker (i.e. big-voiced and over-coiffed), Berg is nonetheless gifted with an instrument that’s pitch-perfect for the songs she writes, which are deeply emotional, literate, beautifully crafted little works of art. 

On 1997’s Sunday Morning To Saturday Night, Berg dressed up her lovingly crafted, insightful tunes with guest stars and electric guitars, searching for the middle ground between her own naturally spare style and what Nashville expects.  The result was an excellent album that nonetheless failed to catch fire in the charts.  On its long-awaited successor The Dreaming Fields, she declares an end to compromise, stripping things down and rejecting overt commercialism by focusing these songs around her own voice and acoustic guitar.   Electric, slide, bass, drums, keys and strings are present, but they are background, textural elements used only to decorate and support Berg’s piercing narratives. 

The Dreaming Fields is Matraca Berg distilled to purest form, and the results are nothing short of stunning.  Her songs have always been sharp and witty and compassionate; here they add fresh layers of hard-fought wisdom and mid-life perspective to gain a weight and resonance that most country artists only dream of achieving (if their ambitions fall in that direction at all).

Opener “If I Had Wings” is a stark, compelling tale of an abused spouse finally gathering the courage to escape.  That description makes it sound rather cliché; it’s anything but, more like a shatteringly effective prose poem set to music, haunting precisely because it avoids melodrama and simply speaks in the calm, direct voice of its protagonist.  The ending (spoiler alert) is a fine capper, the ambiguous line “We all knew sooner or later, it was gonna be me or him.” Did she kill him? As is often the case with great short stories, we don’t know, we can only speculate based on what we’ve learned about these two characters over the course of the previous four minutes.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Kenny Chesney just released his version of the second song on this album as a single, and it’s easy to see why.  “You And Tequila,” co-written by Berg and friend Deana Carter, is another brilliant piece of storytelling surrounding this remarkable chorus: “You and tequila made me crazy / Run like poison in my blood / One more night might kill me, baby / One is one too many / One more is never enough.”  The bridge offers this typically incisive Berg line: “It’s always your favorite sins / That do you in.”  Berg’s version is slow and dreamy and magnificently understated in a way that emphasizes its poetry even more.

“Racing The Angels,” like “South Of Heaven” later on, has a spiritual caste and features pals Suzy Bogguss and Gretchen Peters on harmony vocals.  Both are contemplations of mortality and its implications, delivered like secular hymns, decorated with subtly beautiful arrangements, but solemn and contemplative at their core.  The tempo picks up momentarily with “Silver And Glass,” a mid-tempo tune narrating the fall of Hollywood star.  It’s all in there: plastic surgery, addiction, the beauty myth, put to a supple melody with a distinct Mary Chapin Carpenter feel. 

The quiet returns with the gentle break-up song “Clouds” and the spare title track.  The former has an almost meditative quality as the accordion, piano and gentle brush strokes of slide guitar paint the end of a relationship: “Let me take the weight off of your shoulders / There ain’t no easy way to leave.”  The latter is gorgeous piano-and-cello hymn to the almost mystical connection between her grandfather and the family farm: “Where every tears that falls on a memory / Feels like rain on a rusted plow.”

“O Cumberland” is simply one of the prettiest damn road songs I’ve ever heard, a painted-landscape ode to a river rolling by and the lives it intersects.  “Lazy old river, not a lick of ambition / You get to Kentucky, and then you go back home… No matter where I run, I hear you calling me… My heart’s resting on your banks in Tennessee.”  The acoustic melody is gorgeous, as are the harmony vocals on the chorus by Berg’s husband Jeff Hanna.

Just when you might have started wondering if Berg’s forgotten how to have fun, along comes the tart lyric and sultry country-blues groove of “You’re Husband’s Cheating On Us.”  The dialogue between the mistress commiserating with the wife about the husband who’s cheating on both of them sparkles with metaphors and righteous anger.  “If we got together, don’t you think we’d be dangerous?”  Yes indeed—it’s delicious, funny and sad all at once.

Soft-spoken closer “A Cold Rainy Morning in London In June” is a love letter to the spouse you’re missing, a universal emotion encapsulated in a truly lovely piano ballad.  Melancholy but very pretty, it puts a gentle, reflective finish to a gentle, reflective album.

The Dreaming Fields is raw and simple, a series of country-folk narratives that stand on their own two feet and simply demand that you appreciate their honesty and poetry.  By putting all thoughts of commercial appeal aside and letting the songs stand or fall on their own, Berg has delivered the album of her career, a genuine work of art that is nothing short of magnificent. 

Welcome back, Matraca.  You’ve been missed.

Rating: A

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© 2011 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Dualtone, and is used for informational purposes only.