By Carrie Newcomer. Available Light, 2016. 108 pages. $11.99/paperback. 12 tracks. $11.99/CD; $9.49/MP3 album.
I once heard Carrie Newcomer recalling a conversation between herself and a friend about whether or not she should go back to grad school to get more credentials. This wise friend said that every album she had recorded and released was a credential, and that she has a PhD in her life’s work. The Beautiful Not Yet is Newcomer’s sixteenth solo album in a musical career that has spanned over 35 years. In it, you can hear a level of ease and mastery that comes with that experience.
Newcomer is a solo artist who is also, fundamentally, a collaborator and community builder. The songs in this album and the poems and essays in the accompanying book arise from solitude, silence, community, and collaboration. Several were written as a part of a spoken word and musical collaboration with fellow Friend Parker J. Palmer and musician Gary Walters called “What We Need Is Here: Hope, Hard Times and Human Possibility,” which is scheduled to premiere this spring. These include “You Can Do This Hard Thing,” “Help In Hard Times,” and “Three Feet Or So.” Others were inspired by the poetry of others or began as poems themselves in the accompanying volume.
Often compared to poet Mary Oliver, Newcomer’s work has a similar down-to-earth poetic sensibility, turning everyday interactions with others and experiences of the natural world into the sacred ordinary. This album and book have a prescient quality, showing up right on schedule as balm for politically divided times full of personal and communal suffering. The songs and writings are not simplistic, innocent, or blithe. They are instruction manuals and lunchboxes full of nourishment to help us put one foot in front of the other, find small hope and light, and enjoy love in the midst of hard times.
Musically, The Beautiful Not Yet is also a collaboration, featuring a symphony of Americana instrumentation—banjo, fiddle, mandolin, accordion—as well as standards for Newcomer—guitar, piano, bass, percussion, cello. The instrumentation lifts up the words, rather than detracting or overpowering them. In addition, incredible vocalists Moira Smiley (VOCO) and Krista Detor, among others, join Newcomer on this album. The first song, “Lean in Toward the Light,” is an anthem that gets to the heart of Quaker practice with a touch of gospel choir action on the chorus.
After listening to and reading The Beautiful Not Yet, I want to live in Newcomer’s world. It is a world that calls me to my best self, but in a way that seems possible, manageable, and desirable rather than overwhelming. As she writes in the poem “Kindness,” “Kindness is human size, / Honest and doable, / Softening even the hardest of days, / The country cousin to love.” It inspires me to read more poetry and to write more. Her ease, mastery, and devotion to her own purpose will likely inspire the same in those who read and listen to this album and book.