Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Time* Sex* Love*’ An SACD review by Nicholas D. Satullo

Audio enthusiasts are prone to fascination and, sometimes, even obsession over the electronics comprising their systems. Often, a tap on the shoulder is helpful as a gentle reminder that these hefty black or silver boxes are merely the devices by which their true enjoyment is delivered—the music itself. In the celebrated quest for the trophy of the best and most refined electronics, the real object is often overlooked. It’s easy to forget that the real pursuit is the enjoyment of music, and that the quest for better and more refined electronics is only a means to that end.

So it is with some sense of confession that this review even occurs. Were it not for my recently declared stampede on the new multi-channel formats of SACD and DVD-Audio, I would have remained largely ignorant of the music of Mary Chapin Carpenter, and this album in particular. Here, however, my lust to use my multi-channel toys has served me well, because the scarcity of available titles has prompted me to request titles indiscriminately, like a hungry refugee pointing at pretty pastries in a baker’s display, for the singular reason that they happen to exist in either of these high resolution multi-channel formats. No doubt, such purchasing habits have thus far produced their share of flops, but jewels also get unearthed. This is one of the jewels.

My fondness for ‘Time* Sex* Love*’ is primarily because I have so fallen for the music, and the gifted lyrics of Mary Chapin Carpenter. But this also happens to be one of the best examples of multi-channel SACD I have heard. There’s some greater personal irony here, because the very title of the album sounds enough like a dreadful pop-psychology paperback to trigger a latent sense of pyromania in me; even worse, the real, complete title makes me start lighting the matches. The album’s full title is ‘*Time is the great gift; *sex is the great equalizer; *love is the great mystery’. In the vacuum of the printed word, you sense the sort of weepy wisdom often cajoled into existence by large volumes of alcohol. But great works of art often carry titles that would hardly suggest their greatness (‘Moby Dick’?), so the usual bromides of books and their covers apply.

But here lies the work of a gifted lyricist. Whatever the title, the themes of—well, time, sex, and love—are all sized to the human mind and soul, and those themes get developed cleverly and, sometimes, exquisitely in her lyrics. Then, if your precious electronics are even modestly capable, you get the best of a few worlds: Superb music, captured in a multi-channel presentation that will prompt pleasant thoughts of your equipment.

Prior to this release, I was acquainted only casually with Mary Chapin Carpenter, primarily through some popular cuts which I have only lately learned are hers (though I have, on the strength of this disc, purchased three of her other seven albums). While I could point to her five Grammy® Awards as descriptive of her music (all Country Music Awards), I’m really not comfortable with that facile of a designation, and I was enthused to read that she too eschews the title, claiming “…there isn’t one perfect label for certain music, and that’s as it should be.” The reference point of “country” is accurate, but there are definite flavors of pop, rock and rhythm and blues intermingled in her work. The works on ‘Time* Sex* Love*’ are still south of, say, The Eagles (who I would consider a rock band with a country influence), but north (or east) of what I would expect to hear from a “Nashville” performer (she’s from New Jersey, anyway).

Carpenter sings on all tracks, and plays acoustic guitar on all but two of the fourteen titles. She either wrote or co-wrote all the titles on ‘Time* Sex* Love*’.

The Columbia SACD has a multi-channel and a two channel SACD track, and is not a hybrid disc. These comments are restricted to the multi-channel track.

Where to begin? The best SACD sound I have heard has refined tonal clarity, particularly when compared to normal CD playback. The tonal clarity, the refinement of sound on this disc is among the best I have heard in any high-resolution release, whether SACD or DVD-Audio. The voice of Mary Chapin Carpenter—which you will almost entirely hear from the center channel, and there alone—dissipates very little, if at all, into the surrounding music. The discreteness of this effect is certainly assisted by the manner in which she cleanly phrases her lyrics, but this is true even when her voice shares the center channel with an instrument, such as an electric guitar.

The “.1” (low bass) on this disc is likewise among the best I’ve heard. I’ve often read glowing descriptions of subwoofers as “fast,” and I’ve likewise read that this is just market-speak, but the low bass delivered to a pair of stereo powered subwoofers struck a fine balance of raw power and music—I don’t know if these subwoofers were “fast,” but the bass seemed delivered perfectly on time. This effect, too, was aided by the music—there is an “easy listening” quality (in the most non-elevator sense) to the combination of an acoustic guitar and a “clean” subwoofer, particularly when there is nothing between the two. In a lot of this disc, you’ll hear nothing but acoustic guitar and subwoofer. Each are easy to pick out, each are aided by the fidelity of the SACD track, and each are usually combined in producing outstanding music. There’s not much to dislike.

The clarity of the sound from this disc is not confined to only assorted aspects. Each instrument is distinctly and discretely present, and this is due in some part to the manner in which the disc is mixed. There are certain “patterns” that you can discern after listening to the disc a few times. They are:

  • Lead vocals are usually directed to the center channel. There are exceptions.
  • Acoustic guitar (which appears in all but two songs) are usually directed to the front mains.
  • Background vocals (except her own harmonies which are dubbed over her voice in the center channel) all appear in the front mains and the surrounds.
  • Lead guitar is directed to the center channel.
  • Piano accents (such as on ‘Swept Away’) are usually directed to the surrounds.
  • Strings are directed primarily to surrounds (they too are accents in the songs) and, to some extent, to the front mains.

Don’t take the above as the definitive listener’s guide to the surround mix, but that’s the way it sounded after listening to it several times over. The overall effect is, well . . . superb, and often stunning. It’s frequently difficult to separate the equipment or the surround mix from the music, particularly when it’s either very good or very bad (the former in this case), but I’m reasonably certain that even the skeptical will concede that the surround vocal ensemble in ‘Maybe World’ is an event to celebrate. As an aside, note what I thought was a John Lennon influence in the phrasing of that song’s passage . . . “…sorry for the rain that broke the dam that caused the flood.” You’ve got to hear it to understand my meaning (further aside: George Martin showed up at the recording, which was done primarily in London, at Air Studios. Martin is acknowledged in the disc credits for . . . a footstool. Perhaps five Grammy awards doesn’t quell the temptation to drop a name).

For the most part, the tracks on ‘Time* Sex* Love*’ are based on Mary Chapin Carpenter singing, while playing an acoustic guitar. You then add her band, comprised primarily of drums, bass, electric guitar, piano . . . and that is really the most that can be said of what to expect. You’ll hear other assorted instruments (you can read of them in the jacket credits) such as mandolins from the surrounds, horns, choruses of background vocals, different guitars. But each cut is characterized distinctly by one fact: This is her song. It starts with her and her guitar, and that’s really what predominates in all songs.

These are not songs that survive on lovely melody, or even a driving rhythm. Great music often adds a distinctly unfair advantage to the lyrical “quality” of verse that, without the music, would fall flat and dull (note how much more this is true of many movies). What’s so admirable about Carpenter is the craft and skill she demonstrates in her lyrics. That they come packaged in her songs is only so much the greater bargain.

In ‘Swept Away’, you’ll get the “country” part of Mary Chapin Carpenter, but, again . . . not entirely. In lyrics of loss and regret, the first chorus is sung, with slight piano from the surrounds, her voice dominating from the center, background vocals spread abroad:

Old wounds, sad scenes, love lost, bad dreams
Heartache, old scars, old walls, these are
Swept away, swept away, swept away.

And the ending chorus, breezing with internal rhyme and implication:

All this ancient history, every unsolved mystery
Years I’ve carried with me,
Vanish when you kiss me.

She can turn a phrase as well as you like. ‘In The Name of Love’ asks, first, “…what if the night complied, bringing you to my door?” Later, after a chorus, the lyrics play on this phrase with a slight and subtle twist: “…what if the night conspired, bringing you to my door?” As the music reaches its heights, the night has moved from merely “complying” to “conspiring”. Such is the stuff that Literature professors underline in their books, and the subtlety and sophistication of her work is as apparent in her lyrics as anything else.

In all respects, I recommend this disc. It took me a short while to move beyond a style of music to which I was not accustomed, and, once delivered, I was provided some unexpected and unexperienced rewards. The multi-channel SACD is outstanding in its sonic fidelity, and in its very effective and tasteful surround mix. There’s a lot here to like.