The overarching theme of the Kennedys’ splendid new album, West, is traveling along purposeful roads. The booklet illustration depicts a rural road–one lane going west, the other east, while the album’s cover shows the couple in a field after the leaves on the trees have gone; two horses–one looking left, the other gazing forward–breathe silently in sturdy thought as thick, white clouds float above. There appears to be a chill in the air, but warmth is likely on the horizon.
Pete and Maura Kennedy have always been keen observers of hopeful travels. The 13 songs on West follow hopeful characters on their way or already there. The voices carrying the melody in the title song, all musical bounce and joy, sing about looking for a new home out west, but really that could mean moving in any direction. Their aim is true, even if there are potentially hazardous signposts along the way: “We traveled west into the sunset/Never reckoned with the cost/We laid it all down on a wildcard bet/Time will tell if we won or lost.”
In the sweet-sounding, country-pop charmer “Jubilee Time,” a cousin of some distance of the songs on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, a person appears to be off his mark and conflicted as he travels his path; the narrator wishes safe travels, but offers cautionary advice: “Choose your steps like crossing ice/And cut just once if you measure it twice.” There is a light up ahead. “May your load be light my friend/May the road be bright on the way you wend/And when you’re standing with your hat filled with rain/Just remember that we will meet again.”
Some of the songs on West find their characters at a crossroads and offer blissful solutions. Painting with Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison brushstrokes in the enchanting “Locket,” the singer tells the tale of her broken heart, healed when love comes her way. “So put your hand into your pocket/You’ll find that I slipped you the key/It will open my heart if you give yours to me.” Dotted with Holly Easter eggs, this song is among the Kennedys’ best. Maura’s vocal is heavenly, painted with golden hues.
“Perfect Love,” written especially for Pete and Maura by the Records’ John Wicks, is a lovely number that posits a union as blissful as two hearts might imagine to be possible. “Riding along together, playing for you and me/Theirs is the perfect two-part harmony,” the narrator sings. It’s a lovely sentiment, perfectly realized with a loving pen put to paper, a heartfelt poem set to a beautiful melody.
There’s plenty of beauty in the rock and roll shuffle of “Travel Day Blues.” Keen harmony vocals and Pete’s rocking Chuck Berry guitar lines chug along, carrying a series of images of people going from here to there in a kind of E.L. Doctorow narrative. Jack Kerouac, Herman Hesse, Jesse James, Johnny B. Goode, Stagger Lee and others make their way to their promised lands. We’re all making our way in our own time: “Louisiana road house to Carnegie Hall/Sometimes it seems like we’ve seen it all/Feelin’ kinda beat but we still walk tall/Walking’ off the travel day blues.”
Pete’s “Good, Better, Best,” written for Maura on the occasion of the couple’s twentieth anniversary, is about all-encompassing love saving the day . “When my way was dark and the road did wind/You came along and you showed me a sign,” the couple sings. “I’ve tried to tell you a thousand times/But I always seem to flub my lines/Life is good, better, best/’Cause I’ve loved you/’Cause I’ve loved you.” In other words: If you stumble and fall along the way, I’ll be there to pick you up. We’ll travel this journey together.
West chronicles the journey, wherever it leads, in the most magical of ways; it is alive from first note to last and it is perhaps the Kennedys’ best work. West is alive, alive with the purpose of the journey, and it sings. West is a journey taken along purposeful roads; it is a journey worth taking again and again.
[Eleven songs from West have been added to the Pure Pop Radio playlist: the title track, “Elegy,” “Sisters of the Road,” “Signs,” “Jubilee Time,” “Locket,” “Southern Jumbo,” “Travel Day Blues,” “The Queen of Hollywood High,” “Perfect Love,” and “Good, Better, Best.” Now spinning in rotation.]