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Mary Gauthier

MERCY NOW (Lost Highway) • Mary Gauthier

There are songwriters and there are truth tellers. The distinction isn't made to belittle talented and inspired tunesmiths everywhere, but to acknowledge the preternaturally gifted among us who cut so deeply and eloquently to the bone that their best work achieves a nearly unbearable intimacy. Hurts so good, as a Midwestern troubadour of renown once said.

Nashville singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier is one such truth teller (a term she herself uses to describe her musical touchstones--Dylan, Prine, Morrison, Young, Patti Smith, et al), and Mercy Now is her best work. So far. The album, Gauthier's fourth overall and first on Lost Highway, takes an impressive leap beyond 1999's Drag Queens in Limousines and its 2002 follow-up, Filth & Fire, records that drew breathless praise from critics and established her as one of the Americana scene's heavy hitters. It's scary to imagine where her artistic trajectory will peak.

Although the Louisiana-bred Gauthier's personal history of addiction, struggle, and triumphant resurrection is well-documented, the turbulent wellspring of her creative catharsis bears repeated mention. This is, remember, a woman who wrote her first song at age 35. Since then they've been pouring forth with emotional ferocity and tireless poetic precision. There are no wasted moments on a Mary Gauthier record.

Certainly not on Mercy Now, which opens with a pre-dawn cold sweat and an eerie whisper on "Falling Out of Love" and doesn't let up until the last notes of "It Ain't the Wind," a battle-scarred statement of resilience, leave listeners in stunned, appreciative silence. Far more often than not, Gauthier's masterfully honed images emerge dark and jagged from the shadows. On "Drop in the Bucket," "I Drink," and "Prayer Without Words," she eulogizes lost love and innocence. "Wheel Inside the Wheel," set to an edgy, N'awlins rhythmic simmer, captures the bizarre spectacle of ragged humanity on parade. Even when the atmosphere lightens a shade or two, as on the gently forgiving title hymn, the palpable, hope-tempered ache that bleeds through Gauthier's weathered pipes carries boundless weight and pierces the heart. Alt-country and folk-pop rarely pack this much visceral gut-punch. Nothin' but the truth. • Mike Thomas

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check out our interview with Mary Gauthier

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