Review: Lori McKenna makes turning out good music look easy

Lori McKenna, “The Balladeer” (CN Records/Thirty Tigers)

On “When You’re My Age,” one of the best cuts from her fine new album “The Balladeer,” singer-songwriter Lori McKenna readily concedes that these are challenging times.

“When you’re my age,” she writes, “I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now/And I hope the front page isn’t just a reminder, of how we keep letting each other down.”

That’s about as political as the two-time Grammy winner is likely to get. It also might be the one element that sets this album firmly in 2020.

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McKenna, who lives in her native Massachusetts but plies her trade in Nashville, is wiser and more firmly established in who she is. But the consistent level of high-quality songcraft she’s established over three consecutive albums now is remarkable.

It doesn’t hurt that she’s working again with Nashville’s current go-to producer of award-winning work, Dave Cobb. He helps elevate her journey through familiar themes — life advice, vivid memories, connections to people she loves — on an acoustic foundation that’s elegant but never overcooked.

McKenna’s songwriting, though, is clearly the featured attraction. The album showcases her knack for starting out someplace corny and then veering off into something utterly original.

Take, for example, a song called “Stuck in High School.”

“I rose-colored those memories with drug store sunglasses, I never liked warm beer or cigarettes,” she sings. “But I liked watching the smoke clear the high school fence.”

There it is, the master’s art. The cliche is the starting point, the rose-colored glasses, altered just enough to not be tiresome. But then the scene gives way to something unforgettably visual.

It helps explain why McKenna has by now long established herself as one of the best songwriters working in any genre. And she does it again and again.

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