A clapboard church sits with its sermons listed on a proud little sign, trying to outdo the tavern next door, the shouting yellow plastic currency exchange, the sedan on fire in the alley. Too bad salvation’s a tough sell. Mary Gauthier finds places like this in her songs and inhabits them with weariness, resignation and the ultimate reward of hope. Mercy Now is her latest album, and her Lost Highway debut after three respected indie releases and an infamous history of desolation living. It winds ably through creaky folk, some rangy rock, spare singer-songwriter moments, and supporting colors of violin, cello, B3, pedal steel and percussion. The music is always well-played, but most of that feels familiar. No, what really floors on Mercy Now is Gauthier herself, whose storytelling is a steady and deliberate force of gravity. She doesn’t sing so much as shrug her shoulders (the harrowing simplicity of "I Drink"), impart the damage (the rueful breakup note "Empty Spaces") or be a vessel for forgiveness (the shining title track). Like novelist Annie Proulx, Gauthier gives herself and the people in her songs space with which to deal. Things rarely go right, but trying’s better than dying.
Friday, June 3, at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8480) with John Prine.
Johnny Loftus writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].