Between Daylight and Dark is Mary Gauthier's (pronounced Go-Shay) sixth full-length offering, and a compelling step forward from 2005's Mercy Now. Produced by Joe Henry with most of the musicians who played on his Civiliansalbum and Loudon Wainwright III's Strange Weirdos -- Patrick Warren, Jay Bellerose, Greg Leisz, and David Piltch, with Wainwright and Van Dyke Parks making guest appearances -- it possesses a deeply centered, almost organic sound; one that reverberates the intentions of the songwriter without trying to meet the sound head on. Henry is able to present songwriters as strong presences, as the still centers of a chaotic, frenetic world that whirls all around them, leaving them unaware of the presence of his voice ordering it without being swallowed in the process. But before a producer can make that happen, the songs need to be there, fully present, and contain enough aesthetic authority to allow themselves to be delivered, not consumed. Gauthier has them in spades. She walks her own fraying tightrope; she even dances on it, letting all senses of paradox, violence, dislocation, loneliness, tenderness, bitterness, acceptance, and yes, love, flow through the grain of her earthy voice. The band is ever present yet never intrusive. They offer the singer just enough weight to let her know she's on sure footing on this ledge. And she does know it, but the lyrics here are so utterly naked that a few friends watching her back can keep her from being swept off into the void.
"Snakebit" is a hunted, struck-with-horror country blues underscored by Leisz's snarling dobro; the scenario comes right out of Flannery O'Connor and Dorothy Allison. Violence roils in the center of the song, but so do confusion and regret at becoming the thing dreaded most, proving the enemy's assertion in the process -- especially when that enemy is flesh and blood.
But it's not that simple. Simply by asking "What have I done?" she elevates herself by virtue of a conscience above that primal argument. A sparse piano and acoustic guitars adorn the rain shimmering snare and weary tom toms in "Can't Find the Way." This song talks about Katrina in a way no one else has yet. The well of sadness breaks open just as the levees did. Rage has no place here because the way home no longer exists, and the desire for it is canceled out by a realization dawning in Gauthier's voice; her protagonist knows that the font of belonging somewhere has been washed away; that life will never again touch what has been the state of living without being broken-hearted. Genre matters not here, parlor music and Woody Guthrie's folk tragedies mix with country and even the ghost-trace of Southern country gospel. The title track was co-written with Fred Eaglesmith. It's a lonesome waltz with enough nostalgia in it to really be present to everything in the moment, no matter how minute it is; the observations are imbued with significance simply as they are in the eyes and ears of the singer. The power of description here is profound: catching this fleeting period of the day as it surrenders to dark calls forth the well of emotions that are often better left unspoken because they can't be identified.
"Last of the Hobo Kings," with Piltch's gorgeous bassline against Gauthier's guitar and a floating B-3, tells the tale of one of America's displaced, utterly forgotten heroes -- at least for the singer -- the itinerant wanderer who lives by wit, free will, and backbone. She could have offered his story as an elegy, but here it is a testament to him, and a funeral dirge for us. The foreboding bass drum and muffled bassline in "Before You Leave" is as brave a song about need and amorous desperation as Gauthier's ever written. It's resigned; it's accountable even as the protagonist knows that this ending was brought about by her own foibles, her very nature. The tension in the song moves inside the listener who may not be able to bear the simple words that belie these very complex emotions. The lap steel whines, offering this as a country love song, and the lyrics: "The darkness that shadowed you was mine/It was never yours at all/And the light behind your eyes that used to shine/Gets brighter as you walk away....Tell me that you love me one more time/before you leave..." give away the kind of hurt, emptiness, and perhaps the self-recrimination that await her after this parting gesture.
Gauthier's best songs look around at houses and the dust that remains in them after its inhabitants have gone. To her they aren't ghosts, but sadly grinning shadows. "Please," with its quietly insistent acoustic guitars, offer the trace of passage, even as a Weissenborn and mandolins register in the present the kind of loneliness that cannot be filled by another person. "Same Road," co-authored with Liz Rose, is simply too big a song to write about here. Its sound in the interplay between instruments echoes its words and the nearly unbearable truth in its emotion. If there were ever an ode to self-determination based on the awareness of one's flaws and the need to depart from the clutches of sickness, this is it. (Nick Cave may have written some sad love songs in his day, beautiful ones even, but he doesn't have the balls to write anything this unvarnished and wrapped in the dirty light of truth.) But all this roughhouse rodeo of the human spirit is answered in the affirmative in the beautifully yet plaintively wrought "I Ain't Leavin,'" co-written withTravis Meadows. It seems to say that sometimes redemption occurs only by standing completely still and facing everything just as it is -- without flinching. A steel guitar winds through the bassline as a fingerpicked acoustic letsGauthier's voice make its case. Warren's piano enters and carries the following verses to one another, with help from the hushed tom tom. Wainwright and Sally Dwosky help on the chorus to draw the line in the sand. All of these beautifully understated sounds are held in check by Henry; he never allows this gifted band to even get close to overcoming the singer, but more to offer her a series of fluid yet defined surfaces she can stand with her back to, and speak from, without hesitation. Kristen Hall (who used to be a third of Sugarland and was its heart and soul as a songwriter) gets a credit for helping out on the scarred beauty and truth of the late-night, empty rooms ballad "Soft Place to Fall." The band's there, they are taking in the song as if it was their own to sing under threatening skies, andWainwright's lonesome backing vocal carries it to the listener that way. The album ends with "Thanksgiving," a mournful prison ballad that Johnny Cash would have been proud to sing. Henry and Gauthier offer a subtly textured backdrop for this powerful poetry. In so many ways this song could have come from early in the 20th century, and if it weren't for the mention of cars, it may have entered the mind of Stephen Foster when he hit the downside of his romance with America. That's not a comparison so much as an affirmation, a mark that goes as deep as a tattoo made with a straight pin and ink made from shoe polish.
Despite the dark nature of many of these songs, Gauthier's voice carries the truly "human" in them. With it, she can make words that would seem sensational coming from another the stuff of uncommonly intimate conversation. Hers isn't merely confessional songwriting: it's archetypal. It looks ever deeper to pull out the most indescribable truths and communicate them simply. That's no mean feat. The loneliness born in these songs is carried inside a generous heart, one as full and flawed as the world it moves through and makes no apologies for itself, yet offers itself freely, without arrogance or artifice. Gauthier is a monster songwriter, but she is also an iconoclast because she's a poet by the virtue of her gift. The reason is simple: it's hard to imagine anyone else singing these songs anywhere near as convincingly.