If it takes more than 10 minutes for Lori McKenna’s The Tree to break your heart, you might not have one.
McKenna has always excelled at crafting tearjerkers. In addition to nine previous albums full of (mostly) sad songs, she also wrote or co-wrote songs like Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” (happy sad) and Brandy Clark’s “Three Kids, No Husband” (sad sad). Her latest co-write to move the needle is a Carrie Underwood song called “Cry Pretty” (badass sad). Suffice to say that McKenna is familiar with tears and exquisite, aching pain.
Even by McKenna’s standards, though, the first 10 minutes of The Tree are a doozy. In those 10 minutes, she manages three songs—“A Mother Never Rests,” “The Fixer,” and “People Get Old”—that are bound to put a lump in your throat. The first is a tribute to great moms and all the hard work they do to raise their kids. The second is about a family patriarch who tries to cope with his wife’s ailing health by tinkering with tools and projects. And the third is about McKenna’s father and the slow and steady march of time.
These are remarkable songs, and they earn their sadness. McKenna’s songs hurt not because they focus squarely on tragedy, but because they focus on the things that give tragedy its back-breaking force: love, time, and memory. You can always hear the years in McKenna’s songs, and not just because Dave Cobb’s dusty, no-frills production makes them sound like faded photos in an album where the spine is cracking because you’ve flipped through it so many times. “A Mother Never Rests” aches because it captures the entirety of youth, from the day a child is born to the day they drive away for college, in the space of two minutes and 45 seconds. “The Fixer” punches you in the gut because everything in McKenna’s storytelling—from their grown kids to the way the characters discuss their differing opinions about religious faith—suggests two people who have been together for a very long time. And “People Get Old” is wondrous in part because of how quickly the choruses whip you through time, from the innocence of childhood to the rebellion of teenage years, all the way to marriage and parenthood.
It says a lot about The Tree that McKenna packs so much of life into those first three tracks. By themselves, these songs could function as one of the year’s most complete artistic statements. The rest of the album only deepens those themes of family, domesticity, and growing up. “Young and Angry Again,” one of the album’s punchiest cuts, is a paean to the wildness of youth, and to a time when you “hated broken hearts but loved the songs about ‘em/’Cause someone finally felt the way you did.” “The Tree” is an extended metaphor about how our parents and families shape us and define us in ways we don’t always realize until many years after the fact. “You Won’t Even Know That I’m Gone” is McKenna’s entry in the “road life” song genre, told with deep empathy from the perspective of someone trying to convince herself that the love of her life won’t be lonely in her absence (spoiler: he will be). And “The Way Back Home” is about that moment where the kids leave home to chase their own stories, and about how leaving doesn’t mean never coming back.
One of the most wonderful moments of The Tree comes in the form of “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s,” a song McKenna says she wrote after reading Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. “[I was] amazed by his detailed reflection on growing up surrounded by the Catholic Church,” she said. “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s” took form as a result. The young couple in this song chooses the parking lot behind a church as their spot for rebellion: for quietly stolen kisses and cigarettes they shouldn’t be smoking and beers they aren’t old enough to drink. As they get older, their relationship strains and loses its magic, and they find themselves wishing they could “get back to when September was our only adversary”—a simple bit of imagery that flawlessly captures the freedom of a youthful summer and how you can never really get it back. “God’s love is almighty,” the characters learn at the end of the last verse, “but our love is just bones and flesh.”
If there are better songwriters than Lori McKenna on the planet right now, I bet you can count them on one hand. Her last record, 2016’s The Bird and the Rifle, hinted at that fact, but The Tree is even better. Its emotional gut punches linger for longer, and its themes build into something more potent across the course of 11 songs. Like the best Springsteen LPs, The Tree grapples with many of the same questions from one song to the next—about the specters of faded youth, the durable bonds of family, or the forever-ness of a place truly worthy of being called “home.” Also like Springsteen, she doesn’t necessarily find the answers she’s looking for by the time the record stops spinning, if only because life is a constant search for answers that will always, always elude us. The result is that, with The Tree, Lori McKenna has made an album as big as life itself. It’s her masterpiece.