“Pray to Jesus” is a good song to kick off Brandy Clark’s debut solo album, 12 Stories. Like the tracks that follow, it’s from distinctly female point of view with touches of levity underlying real issues of family and livelihood. “Don’t want to be buried in debt or in sin/ So we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto/ Cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow.”
Clark’s songwriting has made it big in country already, with writing credits for Reba McEntire, Sheryl Crow, and Miranda Lambert. But if you had any doubt about her writing, it shines on this album, especially when it comes to nuanced lives of women.
In “Crazy Women,” Clark cleverly takes on the gendered “crazy ex” trope by wryly profiling a hapless guy who “cheats and lies, then plays the victim/ He don’t know why they always seem to pick him” and positing “Crazy women are made by crazy men.” The track “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a first-person account of a woman approaching a hotel to meet a man for a tryst, questioning her actions through the whole song (“He’s some stranger’s husband and I’m some stranger’s wife”). In songs with a similar formula, there’s usually a “twist” where the narrator has a change of heart (during an emotional key change, natch) to “do the right thing,” even if it means going back to a loveless marriage. But here the song simply fades away and we’re left not knowing the woman’s final decision.
What’s refreshing about her songs is that they go beyond monolithic gender stereotypes and a wider range of emotions and realities than your average Taylor Swift album. It should come as no surprise that Clark has collaborated with Kacey Musgraves, another country artist pushing boundaries in country writing (and also singing about weed). Clark co-wrote Musgraves’s “Follow Your Arrow” and joins Chely Wright as one of the few openly gay country artists.
Her songs are, as the title suggests, like short stories center about flawed, imperfect (that is, realistic) women—there’s the one who calmly goes through the motions of divorce, the one who’s insecure about her partner’s beautiful ex, or any of the heavily medicated characters in “Take a Little Pill.” And like any good short story, she uses a smart economy of language—see: the punchy opening line of “Crazy Women” (“Who’d a guess/ that Aquanet/ could start a fire/ with a single cigarette”), all with the sensibility of a Top 40 country song with catchy riffs and sing-along choruses. The final track, “Just Like Him,” is the album’s most devastating, where a woman comes to term with loving a hurtful, possibly abusive man—a man a lot like her father.
“Get High” is the Feminine Mystique meets “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” about a housewife who lights up alone in her kitchen to get by. The smart lyrics and easy tempo keep the song centered and solid instead of veering into novelty. In fact, it’s the single “Stripes,” about a woman whose concern with appearances is the only thing keeping her out of jail, is her goofiest. “Illegitimate Children”—a song less about offspring and more about drunk hook-ups—seems like a missed opportunity to discuss birth control, given Clark’s subtle approach to politics.
Whether you’ve been waiting like someone like Clark for a while or just enjoy good songwriting, pick up 12 Stories near you!
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