If you have an Instagram account, it’s likely you’ve seen, or you yourself has posted (god knows I have) a caption accompanying some couple you know that says “we only could hang out with each other this year.” That caption, usually with some muted filter, references, of course, the fact that all of us have been locked in our houses with our significant others for a year thanks to the collision of government ineptitude, a historically deadly virus and the willingness of our fellow residents to kill each other in order to eat Fuddrucker’s. After this is all over, though, there ought to be a major study on how this pandemic actually affected people in relationships; it’s hard to retain everything that makes a marriage or partnership work when you are literally prevented from seeing anyone else, and when you spend 24 hours of every day in the same set of square footage. Divorces are up and, Instagram comments aside, I’d imagine so are fights over who did or did not let the dogs out last, or who forgot to fill the Brita or who would like the other to turn down the volume on their TikTok.
Carly Pearce, the country star behind the quietly devastating “Every Little Thing,” had her own troubles during 2020, her 29th year, giving her new release its name. Like all artists, her career was put on ice last year; her sophomore self-titled album came out right before COVID shut everything down, and she moved back home with her parents and was left wondering when she could tour or make a new album again. But more viscerally, last summer, she went through a very public divorce after one year of marriage to country singer Michael Ray, whom she, this is true, performed the steamy ballad “Finish Your Sentences” with on Good Morning America the same week COVID restrictions swept the world (as a sidebar, they weren’t even the only country duo to get divorced last year, love to Kacey Musgraves and Ruston Kelly).
Divorce has been a central building block to country songwriting at least since Tammy spelled it out, so it was basically even odds on that event taking center stage on her next release, and it’s the ghost that haunts the mainframe on 29, a seven-song cycle that covers everything from gaslighting (“Liability”) and the feeling an ex had you fooled all along (“Should’ve Known Better”) to the unpredictability of moving on (“Messy”) and explaining how much of a dog your ex was to his new paramour (“Next Girl”). Taken together, it’s an homage to the ’90s country Pearce cites as her inspiration, a modern-day Shania Twain or Lee Ann Womack album, filtered through a very modern divorce, co-starring drunk texts and a more robust wine selection at the local grocery store.
Pearce has been playing coy in interviews about whether or not these songs are actually about Ray, but even if they aren’t, one of the pleasures of 29 is her reading the subject of these songs for absolute trash up and down these seven songs. He’s a silver-tongued devil, he’s someone who reminded her of the men who dogged her mom, he’s an adept liar and he moved on without thinking twice about her. But for slow burns, the most devastating own on 29 is the title track, which counts the way that her life went sideways in that year, thanks to the crumbling of her marriage, an age when she thought she’d be buying a house, starting a family and have things figured out, and instead she’s drinking whiskey alone.
For what they’re calling an EP, 29 has the kind of thematic cohesion and execution that some full-length country albums can only grasp at. It’s one of this year’s most rewarding country albums, and should make her third LP one of country’s most anticipated.