Two years ago, in a brief, brutal song called “Melancholy Polly,” Allison Moorer ruthlessly castigated herself for mining her emotional distress for crowd-pleasing material. “Melancholy Polly spills her guts onstage,” she sang. “She can’t get her jollies any other way.” The song concludes with the blunt assertion that in the relationship between Polly’s art and her life, the tail is wagging the dog: “Her life only happens for a song to sing.”
For many artists, great music comes from great misery. The best art often arises from the worst pain, because the most compelling drama is almost always about coming into conflict and overcoming obstacles. When he was hooked on heroin and hopelessly in love with his best friend’s wife, Eric Clapton came up with the towering Layla and Assorted Love Songs. As a (relatively) happy newlywed with three young daughters, he crafted the sleepy ode to domestic bliss Back Home. Only the heartless would begrudge him his happiness, but I know which album I’ll keep returning to for the rest of my life and which one I’ve already filed away and forgotten.
Similarly, one can’t quite wish Moorer ill just so she’ll keep coming up with the kind of magnificent—and magnificently gloomy—work she’s done for the last several years. Each of the albums she released between 2000 and 2004 had the stamp of brilliance, and each was relentlessly bleak. The Hardest Part was a song cycle about a disintegrating relationship; Miss Fortune dwelt on Moorer’s tragic family history; and The Duel (including “Melancholy Polly”) starkly dealt with mortality and the loss of faith. Each suggested that we are all finally alone in the world, but each also crucially asserted that we really only need ourselves to survive anyway—at least, until our inevitable end.
Moorer wrote almost all of those harrowing songs about doomed romance and lovers at cross-purposes with her husband, Doyle “Butch” Primm. But since The Duel, Moorer has split with Primm in both a marital and collaborative capacity. Her new album, Getting Somewhere, reflects a new marriage and collaboration, both with fellow alt-country MVP Steve Earle. He has but one co-writing credit here, but his sonic stamp is all over the album as producer; from the grungy guitars to the serrated snare drum sound and clear, dry vocals, Somewhere sounds more like Earle’s last several efforts than anything Moorer has recorded before.
More important than Earle’s influence as a producer is his evident effect on Moorer’s mood. Getting Somewhere trades doubt for surety, flinty individualism for faith in others, past pain for future hope. Earle and sister Shelby Lynne get a sweet pledge of devotion apiece dedicated to them (“Where You Are” and “If It’s Just for Today”), and Moorer spends much of the record singing about ridding herself of negative influences. The darkest moment, a finely detailed portrait of family violence unfolding on “New Year’s Day,” is set resolutely in the past. In the now, Moorer sings in the kiss-off “Fairweather,” “The clouds are blowin,’ everything is fine / Rainbow on my shoulder in the sweet sunshine.”
Following her previous work, Getting Somewhere plays like a hard-earned happy ending. It’s tuneful, terrifically sung and shot through with a sense of forward momentum that carries you easily through its brief running time. But it’s extremely difficult to make happiness and optimism compelling for listeners—to make it matter—and Getting Somewhere suggests that Moorer hasn’t solved that problem yet.
That’s not so bad, is it? After all, life shouldn’t only happen for a song to sing.