American culture has a bad habit of dismissing the voices of its elders. Hit 50 and, as far as many are concerned, you might as well drift out to sea on an iceberg. Except that icebergs are melting, and mature voices should always be considered relevant because they have, indeed, been there and done that. But it’s still a struggle to be viewed as vital, at least for women.
In music, in particular, aging male rock stars can swagger around a stage — sometimes shirtless — as if the decades weren’t showing at all. And good for them. But let’s afford their female counterparts an equivalent luxury, shall we? Because artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lee Ann Womack, and Mary Gauthier are making some of the most potent and important music of their careers. And so is Gretchen Peters.
To follow up her award-winning Blackbirds, Peters deploys a similar strategy for Dancing with the Beast, but ups every single ante. The set eases the listener in with the magnificent melody of “Arguing with Ghosts.” Written with Matraca Berg and Ben Glover, the song is nostalgic for a time and a place long lost, but resigned to their passing.
That theme of resignation, of resolve, is one that recurs often in the female characters that inhabit Beast. Peters always writes with deep sentiment, but always avoids overt sentimentality. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike, but one she does with grace and grit — qualities she instills in her characters, as well. The heroines in Peters’ songs may well be victims of certain circumstances, but they are never victims. The women of “Disappearing Act,” “Wichita,” and “Truckstop Angel” all have agency, though it has often been hard-earned. Peters does, as well, in the songs that reflect her own life’s experience, including “The Show” and “Lay Low.” Her affinity for presence, gratitude, and self-care is both her rising and her resistance.
The teenage girl at the heart of “The Boy from Rye” makes for a slightly different case study, though. There, Peters retreats back into the psychological traumas endured by young women coming into their own. Shame, confusion, heartbreak… the requisite signposts of coming of age are on full display.
Production-wise, Peters partnered, once again, with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh. Equal parts tender and tenacious, the sonic palette does its job perfectly, leaning in when it wants to and backing off when it needs to. Nowhere is its efficacy more apparent than on “Lowlands,” the most outwardly political song in the cycle. To match the tune’s craft and tone, the producers and players create a washy wall of sounds that swell as the song drones powerfully on. There’s an intentional relentlessness to it all, never letting up for even a second, just like our daily lives in the current political climate.
Dancing with the Beast is a beautiful, thoughtful, and moving collection of feminist portraits as told through the pen and voice of Gretchen Peters, a songwriter who has a lot more left to say than any iceberg would ever allow.