Raising The Bar, by Terri Clark
We have previously seen Terri Clark’s attitude to classics, a reverential attitude for the great songs that inspired her and encouraged her as an artist. When we look at late-career Terri Clark, though, such as her 2018 album “Raising The Bar,” what kind of picture do we have of her and her craft when it comes to original songs, not least original songs that are not very popular and might struggle to have much of an audience were it not for generous laws encourage Canadian content to be played on their radio stations. The title of this album provides an obvious tension between two possibilities of meaning. One of them implies that the singer is raising the bar, that is, raising the level of country music performance through her art, something that many of her fans would be likely to approve of. The other possible reference, though, is a more humble one, and that is as a humorous reference to the problem drinking that has long been associated with country music and that remains and important aspect of popular songs in the genre to this day. Which of these meanings applies to this album? Let’s find out.
“Givin’ Up Givin’ A Damn” opens up the album with a gorgeously produced and spirited ode to heartbreak and the ways that people cope with it through music and driving and reflection. This is a strong start to the album and is unsurprisingly the most popular song here. “Cowboys In This Town” is an upbeat song in praise of the cowboys who drink and carouse, even if the town is in the middle of nowhere. “Weddings, Funerals, And Empty Hotel Bars” is a gloomy and reflective song about people who only return home for family events and find themselves lingering in empty hotel bars to cope with bad memories and traumas from the past. “Young As We Are Tonight” is a call to live the life you have to life, because we are only getting older so we might as well appreciate and enjoy what we are experiencing. “Half A Bottle Down” is a surprisingly upbeat song about the gloomy way that people self-medicate to deal with life’s problems and trials, trying to avoid going too far while numbing their pain. “Bloody Mary Morning” is a story song about a Sunday morning where the narrator’s gloomy spirits lead to problem drinking instead of going to church, adding to this album’s focus on problem drinking. Unsurprisingly, this vibe is continued in the next song, “Watered Down Whisky,” which looks at someone who stays a bit longer than expected after sparking with someone at a bar on Tuesday. “As Long As There’s A Bar,” the fourth song in this album in a row that deals with problem drinking (!), and fifth so far overall, provides a ballad in honor of the way that bars make some people feel better, regardless of what problems or celebrations there are in one’s life. “Right Where You Left Me” is a reflective song about the aftermath of a doomed relationship and looking back on the good times, a touching song remarkably without rancor. “You Can Have This Town” is a melancholy, reflective song on a past relationship that colors the narrator’s enjoyment of the place where she lives, constantly reminded of the former relationship. “The One That Got Away,” (featuring Drake White) features a creative turn on the concept by wishing that a current partner that one had fallen out of love was someone that got away rather than being unhappily around. “The Encore” is a song about strangers finding togetherness in the enjoyment of music, and the narrator’s own reflection on the life of a musician. “Better Than I Was” offers a reflective and meditative closing to the album, showing how the narrator is learning and growing and improving from her mistakes, offering hope that there will be progress in her life.
As one might have hoped, this particular album ended up meeting both of the possible meanings of raising the bar that I pondered as I was about to listen to the album. There are two overarching themes to the album, neither of them remotely unique to this album, namely the ubiquity of problem drinking within country music and the lamenting of broken relationships. (It should not be a surprise that the two phenomena feed into each other, as people self-medicate their broken hearts with problem drinking, and this drinking also often leads to dysfunctional relationships.) Since this album does not do anything particularly new–at best it offers pleasing variations on long-familiar themes–raising the bar does not consist in ploughing new ground but rather in doing what is often done very well. This is an easy album to appreciate so long as one is able to handle the way that Clark strings together numerous songs about the main themes rather than alternating them of breaking up the large chunks of songs. For me, at least, this album is at its strongest in the beginning and the end, but the whole album is definitely enjoyable.