Contemplating matters larger than those of the heart: That, in a nutshell, sums up Beth Whitney’s Into the Ground. Some have dubbed the album “orchestral folk,” others have said it’s infused with elements of jazz-pop and progressive rock but, in truth, it’s a folk-flavored set that possesses a strong hymnal undertow. It’s quite hypnotic.
“Wild Roses” opens the set with a cello, humming and the strumming of an acoustic guitar, with bass, drums and timpani rounding out the sound. “Under the snow, there’s an army of wild roses/How do they know when to wake and when it’s fallow?/These things take time/These things take their time.” Originally from Snohomish, Wash. (the same town that gave us Fretland), she now lives in the Wenatchee Valley with her husband and children, where the natural splendor informs her songs and faith.
“Two Sons” spins the parable of the Prodigal Son that Jesus shared with his followers. We live in an age where it’s become commonplace to condemn those who stumble and fall due to their own missteps yet, as the Bible teaches, to forgive is divine. As Whitney sings, “love has a funny way/of running out to meet the lost/taking you in till you’re alive again/and brighter than you ever been.”
Not all songs delve into faith concerns, mind you. “Wild Horse,” for instance, finds her lost in her thoughts; “In Another Life” delves into a path not taken; “Whole Heart” demands she be taken as as she is, not – as so many do with others – sliced and diced into a more palatable portion; and, in “Moonlight,” she seeks solace in the moon.
A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm,” in which she accompanies herself on banjo, works well as both metaphor and a bridge to the next song, “Thunder,” which is a stark, dark and mesmerizing song that finds her both questioning God and seeking His mercy. It may well be the best song I’ve heard in a long time – at least, that’s what I think when playing it again and again, as I just did.
From what I’ve read, Whitney first picked up a guitar at age 15 and wrote her first song not long thereafter (for a high-school project, of all things). Her influences abound, from Jewel to Tracy Chapman to Mindy Smith, and she’s released seven albums and EPs since 2007. That she’s new to me (and probably most reading this) shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the sprawling nature of the modern music industry, but that’s not a reason to avoid Into the Ground – nor, for the non-religious among us (which, most days, includes me), are the religious connotations.
When Diane entered the den this morning just as “Wild Horse” was breaking free from the speakers, she remarked not long thereafter that it was a mesmerizing song. Within minutes, she was researching Whitney on the ‘net and following along with the lyrics. That sort of says it all, I think.
The album, I should mention, was finished before the pandemic hit, but – I guess – pushed back until life was relatively safe again. Produced by Brandon Bee, it features her husband Aaron Fishburn on bass, Natalie Mai Hall on cello, Bee on guitars, synths and keyboards, and Mark Alvis on drums and percussion. She plays guitar, ukulele and banjo. Also: Because she and Fishburn have two children, she doesn’t expect to tour, though shows close to home will likely take place.
Anyway, let me stutter step to the finish with an observation: This review, posted on the 149th day of 2021, marks my 27th missive about a new (or new-to-me) album this year, which matches the entirety of such posts for 2020. It’s a result of a concerted effort I began on January 1st to not just listen to new and new-to-me artists and albums, which I’ve done forever and a day, but to celebrate them within these pages on a consistent basis. One result that I didn’t consider, however, has been something akin to prolonged hyperbolic overload – when read one after the next, my musings often read like the overblown pronouncements of public-relations hacks. C’est la vie. But make no mistake: Into the Ground deserves to be heard. It’s a tremendous set.
The track list: