D.C.-bred country-singer-turned-folkie Mary Chapin Carpenter went through a serious illness, a divorce and the death of her father before making the wrenching catalogue of woes that is her 12th official album, “Ashes and Roses.” Carpenter (whose 2007 pulmonary embolism was also a subject of her last release, the comparatively cheery “The Age of Miracles”) picks her way through the wreckage in these mournful, minutely observed ballads about the omnipresence of grief.
These are woeful and beautiful coffeehouse folk songs, decorated with sparing, almost offhanded instrumentation that’s often limited to guitars and pianos. Sad songs such as “Learning the World” (”Broken wide open/Cut to the bone/All that you used to know/Is no use at all”) and “What to Keep and What to Throw Away” feel more accurate than the hopeful songs (“I Tried Going West”), which seem like they’re there because they have to be, because they’re part of the inevitable journey, because no one wants to listen to an album about someone who got depressed and stayed that way, unless they’re a Ray LaMontagne fan.
Everything here is better than it has to be, even the songs that reach Lifetime TV movie levels of Lady Sadness, except for “Soul Companion,” a should-have-been slam dunk about the redemptive possibilities of new love. It’s just off somehow, in a way that’s difficult to explain but ultimately proves so immovable that even James Taylor, that great redeemer of awkward duets, can’t fix it.