Sometimes the best music comes out of crippling circumstances. It can be an untimely death, a tragic breakup or even losing a record deal. For Sarah Darling, parting ways with Black River proved to be key in resetting not only her personal life but her creative drive. Following two studio albums, an EP and a hit single with "Home to Me," Darling found herself at the mercy of a fickle, brutal, unrelenting industry. That pain and uncertainty did not hinder her from digging in her heels, however, and she has risen triumphant with a new album, appropriately titled Dream Country, which witnesses a thoughtful songwriter and robust vocalist finally finding her spotlight. She trades in the polished pop-bent production of her previous work for dustier textures, often seeking out considerably alt-country influences to explore and fuse into her work. "For once in my life, let me get what I want. Lord knows, it would be the first time," Darling prays on "Please Please Please," borrowing a nuance and approach worthy of Dolly Parton's delicate and powerful delivery.
A theme of resilience needles throughout Dream Country, painting exquisite and sometimes gritty portraits of a woman down on her luck who must face herself in order to rule the world as she knows it. "I'm not scared like I was before," she whispers on "Anchor" (a song she shares with "Nashville" star and songwriter Sam Palladio), which has more in common with Mary Chapin Carpenter than the flashy showmanship of Shania Twain. On the acoustic-heavy stunner "Halley's Comet," Darling delivers the finest performance of her career--she reflects on the roller coaster ride she's endured, framing it around a young girl who has ambitions for stardom and the fleeting appearance of Halley's Comet. "Hoping someday I would find in the mystery, there's a place for me to shine," she muses. Her expression is utterly hopeful, laced with a world-weary wisdom like a Trisha Yearwood record. '"Halley's Comet' is a very personal track for me. The music business can have its moments of ups and downs, and I happened to write this when I didn't know how or where I was going next," she explains of the song, which she wrote with Cheyenne Medders and Rebekah Powell. "It takes you back to when I first started dreaming about being a singer. It's about finding your place to shine in the world. That's a universal message for all of us."
"Life moves on, goes so fast, we're all afraid to come in last," Darling writes in another beautifully imagined track, the sweeping "Where Cowboys Ride," a co-write with accomplished musician Zach Runquist (known for his work with Craig Morgan, Lauren Alaina and Kristen Kelly). Structured as a "love letter to Wyoming," the moving downtempo also reads as a tribute to the country music greats, who toiled the land and the skies to find their way and have given artists like her reason to flourish. "I've traveled to so many wonderful places in my career, but [Wyoming] stole my heart. It captures the beauty of the landscape and takes to a sky full of stars that you can see for miles. It's also my favorite to sing live." In a digital world, we have a bad habit to take the stunning natural beauty around us for granted, but Darling's testament is extraordinary and poignant.
Darling's stylistic breadth reaches a climax with the propulsive and engrossing "Tell That Devil," rich with earthy rattle and a sheepish Willie Nelson-meets-Miranda Lambert lean. "This song was written by [Emery Dobyns, Matthew Mayfield and] Jill Andrews, whom I adore. She is an amazing singer-songwriter in Nashville," notes Darling. "I wanted to have one relationship song with a little angst, and this one was perfect! It's about not dating the bad boy, which all of us girls do at one point or another. The music sounds like the words I'm singing about."
Elsewhere the lonesome wail of violin, the nudge of piano and a tender Billy Joel waltz found on "Montmartre" (co-written with Jennifer Bostic) finds Darling thriving as a vocalist. Her brooding and thoughtful phrasing has given her the ability to reinvent classic melodies smartly and with gusto. Then, on the smoldering "You Take Me Away" (which she co-wrote with Tyler Flowers and Cheyenne Medders), she basks in jazz inflections, turning each lyric into a slinky reminder of the smokey, swirling clubs Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra used to frequent. The 34-year-old ultimately ties up all the lose ends with the ghostly book-end, the Jesse Terry-penned "Star Gazer," mixing potent strings with an ethereal, cosmic melody. "You belong out there. You weren't born to rest. Go on, star gazer, I know how much it hurts. But you are free now, so pick your universe," she swells.
Dream Country (out tomorrow) is an impressive body work, seemingly treated also as a reintroduction of Darling and her magnetizing charm. "[This album] is an honest body of work that I have been working on for a couple years. The songs capture the wide open spaces and everything I love. It's an album for the optimist and dreamer," she says. She's embraced the good and the bad, and her spirit is one of cracked edges but uncompromising fearlessness.
READ MORE ABOUT MUSIC...