Fate is easy to dismiss until you fall in love. But when a person slots so perfectly into your life, enlivening and redefining it in such ways that make it feel like they were always there, it’s hard to convince yourself that this connection is random happenstance rather than preordained destiny. This makes the breakdown of love, especially long-term love, all the more unfathomable. To be faced with the end of something that seemed written in the stars is to watch all your assumptions about the world and your place within it break apart and fall away. Having written her fifth album Old Flowers following the end of a nine-year relationship, Arizona-born singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews uses an earnestly straightforward Americana/country landscape to map out for listeners her cathartic journey through such immense upheaval towards reassessment, reappraisal and rediscovery.
From the yearning slide guitar of opening track “Burlap String” onwards, Andrews taps into all the signature hallmarks of folk and country balladry. This familiarity is nostalgia in its purest and most effective form, evoking the ache of memories long past as the singer croons “if I could go back now” on the track’s chorus. Ghostly regrets populate the spaces between the lines, with Andrews betraying a reluctance to move on from such an enormous, but indisputably closed, chapter of her life. She’s reaching back towards something unreachable, and this echoes into many cuts on the record. It’s certainly there in the fuzzy, processed keyboards of “Guilty,” which finds Andrews heavy with the grief and shame that comes with those first stages of moving on.
While the album, and indeed Andrews’ repertoire up to this point, refrains completely from breaking the sonic mould, this particular work’s appeal is in its absolute commitment to clarity and authenticity. It’s hard not to be charmed by the rootin’-tootin’ falsetto leaps of Andrews’ vocal on the chorus of “If I Told,” a wistful ditty that navigates both mystic conceptions of romance and the very real, modern anxieties of sending out a text message that might not get a response. A lot of Andrews’ lyrics are unburdened by metaphor or florid language. Instead, they grace and impact in their directness, such as in the painful generosity of admitting she is “proud to have loved” her ex, even now. Her words’ effectiveness calls to mind pop-country breakout Kasey Musgraves, whose work has won hearts by similarly combining a lack of pretension with a raw, wholehearted humanity.
In line with the finest country songwriters, Andrews also takes the opportunity to show off her chops for sharp, vivid storytelling. Album centrepiece “Carnival Dream” is a prime example, with its lyrics depicting a recurring dream in which Andrews searches for and fails to find her former lover at a funfair. It brings the listener straight into her experience, opening up the opportunity for a massive, pained vocal to hit hard declaring “I may never let love in again” on the song’s dramatic, resounding chorus. It’s a starkly simple notion, but it cracks open the door for an assertiveness and self-awareness that emerges on the record’s second half, which seemingly depicts Andrews more sure-footedly navigating the new, uneven emotional terrain she finds herself on.
On title track “Old Flowers,” Andrews reinforces unambiguous statements of intent like “I’m not your object to break / you can’t hold me like I’m yours” with the help of a robust chorus of female backing singers. In recalling the sisterly harmonies of groups like the Dixie Chicks, its suggests Andrews has found some kind of post-breakup solidarity, whether in those around her or within herself. This assertiveness leads to the bright, stomping number “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” which bounds like a John Denver-sized anthem of acceptance and, in its determination to let be what will be, ends up being infectious, undeniable fun. It’s an attitude that feeds into more sensitive numbers, too, such as the bare-bones acoustic cut “Break the Spell,” in which Andrews deftly uses magic tricks as a metaphor for the fine line between magnetism and manipulation that lovers frequently traverse, or in the revelatory penultimate track “How You Get Hurt” where she wades through long-past vignettes before resolutely declaring she is ready to risk the pain of love once again. This latter track especially feels like a soaring finale and a new beginning all at once.
Having toured and written with emo-rock titans Jimmy Eat World and recently covered grizzle troubadour Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” for a tribute album, Andrews has never been shy about the bleeding heart on her sleeve. The entirety of Old Flowers is shot through with melancholy, down to the stripped-back hammond organ that backs sign-off track “Ships in the Night” as Andrews wishes her one-time love well from a great temporal and geographic distance. Her work across the album intermingles wisdom and cliché until one cannot be distinguished from the other, speaking honestly to the fact that each person is a composite of entirely unique perspective and inherited culture. Old Flowers is not an innovative work and fills the breakup album template with a neatness that means it may not enjoy the decades-spanning endurance of the greats it emulates. But Courtney Marie Andrews should absolutely be commended for her willingness to expose and share her own experiences of a universal pain so honestly. If one person sees themselves in the anecdotes and idioms of Old Flowers, then this is an undeniably worthwhile work. In its brightness and simplicity, though, this record’s reach is sure to be much wider than that.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.