Album Review: Gretchen Peters — Hello Cruel World

by Maggie Beauvais

Does your dead-of-winter cabin fever have you feeling the weight of the world’s mercilessness more acutely than usual?  Before you make a big tears and whiskey scene at your local dive bar/cuss out the gray sky and precipitate an avalanche, consider listening up for a fresh set of wise words from done-seasoned country songstress Gretchen Peters.  Her new album Hello Cruel World came out early this week. 

Peters–whose style echos the warm warbly vocals of Emmylou Harris, the hard tongue truth-telling of Steve Earle and the jazzier sides of Etta James (to name just a few fancy anchors for comparison)–describes the years between this album and her last as a time during which “the universe threw its best and its worst at [her].”  Between 2010 and 2012, Gretchen watched the Gulf’s oil mess leak into the ocean from her front porch, saw her adopted hometown of Nashville weather a devastating flood, married her piano accompanist of 20 years, and learned that her son was transgendered.  All of these events inspired Peters to “redefine her ideas of permanence,” to “literally rethink what was real,” the fruits of which thought labor are made manifest right gracefully in Hello Cruel World.

Instrumentally,  Hello Cruel World doesn’t stray too far from country music turf, but in the spirit of Peters’ efforts at reordering her philosophical universe, the country chanteuse expands her native genre’s musical universe as well.  She applies sonically grandiose sounds of orchestras and church choirs to classic country scores; she sends songs on genre detours and experiments with bright flamenco guitar melodies and sultry cabaret style piano arrangements .  Lyrically, Peters makes similarly bold explorations, describing her writing mindset for Hello Cruel World as one in which she “strips herself bare of all the lies, half-truths, false selves and misguided intentions we take on in the course of living.”  The album’s opener is an eerie-keyed toast to all of the ne’er-do-well metaphors the cruel world has bullied Gretchen into personifying  (the “rusty hinge” and “squeaky wheel,” the “boozing bed,” the “cause for concern”).  Songs like “Dark Angel” and “Paradise Found” reject the ivory tower authority of pearly gates and fiery pits and mischievously (and foot-tappingly) relocate divine rapture to the more earthly realm of “the heat underneath [your partner’s] skin.”  The album’s closer “Little World” takes on a quieter disposition, urges the listener to seek salvation not before the altar, but in dim and quiet kitchens and at the foot of garden gates. 

Unfortunately Gretchen’s next appearance on the East coast is TBD at present, but for now you can comfort your world-weary winter heart with her country momma smarts by checking out a live stream of one of her recent performances from the Hello Cruel World tour here.


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