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Doug Paisley’s Winter Melancholy on ‘Starter Home’

[The New Yorker]

By Amanda Petrusich

The bleakness of early winter—the short, hazy days, the bony trees, the way the sky grows dense and unanimated, a sagging gray blanket—can, on the right day, seem nearly funny. “Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back,” the philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in “Meditations,” his second-century accounting of the vagaries of living. Aurelius cautions his reader to resist becoming bitter or mournful, and instead to think of each grievance as an opportunity: “To bear this worthily is good fortune.” For the last decade, Doug Paisley, a folksinger and songwriter from Toronto, has made records that suit the season and its psychic demands, including whatever grim imaginings might take hold on a cold and dim December night. “Starter Home,” his fourth full-length album, was released last month by No Quarter. Paisley’s new songs revel in tough accountings: mistakes, regrets, wrong turns, the eerie quiet that sets in when you’ve had enough time to think all your choices through.

Paisley has worked as a carpenter, and he sings often about interiors and the warm places we retreat to when the landscape turns damp and drizzly. “Starter Home” is, on occasion, about actual houses (doors, windows, Christmas trees, a telephone hung on the wall), but it also concerns itself with the more slippery idea of home as a place of emotional sanctuary. Safety is satiating, but what if the comforts of home trap us as much as they relieve us? The record opens with its title track, a rumination on dashed hopes: “Maybe in time we should’ve moved on / But we stayed here all along / In a starter home,” Paisley sings, over acoustic guitar, pedal steel, piano, and some bass. That particular house—once full of hope, nights spent “dancing so slow in the hall”—becomes something different. It’s too small; the relationship simply shrinks to fit it.

On much of “Starter Home,” Paisley seems seized by some unspoken regret. The feeling is perhaps articulated the most explicitly on “No Way to Know”:

There’s no way to know what it might have been
Through the long years after, there’s no way to know
What we might have made of a love that we could not save
There’s no way to know

It’s difficult to tell whether Paisley believes that the impossibility of seeing further down the path not taken is soothing, or the single most frustrating part of being human, or both. In moments, he seems preoccupied by his own faintheartedness. “Darling, what’s the use to offer an excuse / Every time I have to choose I always run away,” he admits on “Mister Wrong.”

In an interview with Spin, from 2014, Paisley, who has a partner and children, said that he sometimes eulogizes his romantic entanglements prematurely. (“I got in trouble with my girlfriend in a past relationship, like three albums ago, saying that I was writing a break-up album while we were still together,” he said.) It’s interesting to think of “Starter Home” this way, as a preëmptive strike against loss—a person imagining and preparing for the pain before it hits.

Paisley is born of a songwriting tradition that doesn’t eschew or even temper sentimentality, and his work recalls the great country-folk songwriters of the late twentieth century, lonesome troubadours intent on chronicling their self-inflicted heartbreaks: Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Blaze Foley, Lyle Lovett. He has spoken of an enduring affinity for love songs, but the declarations on “Starter Home” are so tender and dynamic they make “love” feel like a reductive, nearly useless word. Why aren’t there more ways to describe devotion? Romantic love isn’t a single, infallible thing; it shifts, grows, implodes, unexpectedly revives itself. Yet the language around it stays small and obtuse. One of the most enriching things about “Starter Home” is how Paisley reimagines love as something that can’t ever mean just one thing. It changes with the seasons, and everything else.

Paisley is a rugged and plainspoken singer, which keeps his songs from feeling precious. His voice is hardy, even when his instrumentation is delicate. There are more than a dozen collaborators credited on “Starter Home,” including the wonderful singer Jennifer Castle, but the record still feels intimate, as if it emerged from a lone, questing consciousness. The turmoil it examines—when to go, when to stay, how to account for what you’ve got before you lose it—is universal.