First Impressions: True North by Caroline Spence

“This world turns you upside down and inside out/And it’s a longer fall the higher you climb/When trouble finds you, you can just do what I do/Grit your teeth, get through it/And wait for the next good time.” So advises singer-songwriter Caroline Spence on “The Next Good Time,” one highlight of many from her latest long player, True North. The dozen songs explore matters of the mind, heart and soul, while her vocal hues range from grainy to pure. 

The album opens with “Mary Oliver,” named after the esteemed poet who transcended the literature niche to gain popular acclaim, and an unlikely confession: “I don’t want to put my pain on a pedestal/Wrap it up and sell it to you at the record store.” She lives up to those words time and again throughout album, eschewing the cheap exaltation of heartbreak and heartache in her lyrics. Rather, she shares the insights and sentiments gleaned from her life’s journey, which—of late—have been informed by the loss of a loved one. In “The Gift,” for example, a phone call leaves her contemplating time and how the present is a gift. And “Clean Getaway” details how the past sticks with us even when we think we’ve outgrown (or outrun) it.

The aching “Blue Sky Rain,” meanwhile, delves into a strained relationship with restraint: “Open up the window, the afternoon comes burning in/There’s thunder in the distance, a different feeling in the wind/There is something wrong, there is something right/Right now, my heart just can’t decide.” “Scale These Walls,” on the other hand, is essentially an introvert’s love song. Here’s a live version:

“Walk the Walk” finds her offering advice to another—or possibly even herself—that she’s learned firsthand through the years: “I’ve worn those shoes/I’ve been stuck in my mind/It’s hard to see a way out/If you don’t let in the light.” “I Know You Know Me,” on the other hand, finds her thankful for her partner, who knows her as well—if not better—than she knows herself. “Icarus” follows Sheryl Crow’s sonic playbook to nice effect while replicating a feat that (to my knowledge) only Tift Merritt has succeeded at: Spring-boarding the Greek myth about the son of Daedalus into a catchy song. The title track, which follows, celebrates finding one’s true north—aka the values that drive us. “The Next Good Time,” my favorite thus far, is a thing of hard-won wisdom—in the words of the noted street poet Bruce Springsteen, “Hard times come and hard times go/Yeah, just to come again.” It’s what we do during the in-betweens that echo on.

The delicate “I Forget the Rest” celebrates the glory of love, before the album closes with “There’s Always Room,” about moving on from loss: “I don’t know what stage of grief/I am singing on these days/But I know there is something new in me/Like someone came and switched on a light.” The easing of grief comes not in a night or weeks, but can take months and even years; it comes when it comes, basically.

In fact, in these seemingly post-pandemic days (and I have my doubts about the “post”), it’s become common for folks to brush to the side all those we’ve lost over the past few years. But loss and grief, both collective and personal, linger like a homeless dog at the back door that’s begging for food. As Denise Levertov observed in “Talking to Grief,” though grief will remain by our side for the rest of our days, it’s only when we let it in the house, and name it, that we’re able to move on with any semblance of normalcy. Truth North tackles that basic theme in a poetic manner, delving into the darkness and embracing the light. It’s an excellent album well worth many listens.

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