Although Bittersweet, the latest album from alt-country singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers, has been available in her native Australia since August of last year, U.S. audiences are just being exposed to it this week. With so many brilliant, heart-wrenching songs, the only complaint here is how long it took to finally reach our shores.
Following the gentle, acoustic beauty of opener “Oh Grace,” Chambers goes into religious contemplation on “Is God Real?” Like so many of the best meditations on religion, the song takes neither an evangelical or atheist stance, simply exploring the idea of God playing a role in our lives, as the narrator vows not to ask for anything more than the will she needs to survive.
Throughout the album, Chambers displays a remarkable ability to weave sharp wit with lyrics that touch on loss and desperation. Although the lonely narrator of “I Would Do” would do anything on the face of the Earth for the object of her affection, the song never seems too dreary. In the opening line, Chambers cleverly quotes the chorus of The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays The Fool,” an out-of-left-field move that distracts the listener from the earnestness of the romantic yearning on display, much like a TV sitcom undercutting a particularly sad scene with a well-placed joke.
The album features a consistent theme of earning salvation (or at least contentment) through unrelenting sacrifice. “Oh Grace” and “I Would Do,” both involve giving things up for the sake of a romantic partner, while “Hell Of A Way To Go” improbably finds joy and honor in an impending death. The closest thing to an unabashedly cheerful song here is the rave-up finale of “I’m Alive”; even then, the narrator is only happy because she overcame an assortment of ugliness in the past.
This is Chambers’ first album since her divorce from fellow musician Shane Nicholson, and as far as post-breakup albums go, Bittersweet does not wallow in unrelenting misery the way, say, Kanye West’s 808s And Heartbreak does. There are plenty of bright moments here, but we only hear them after being dragged through the darkness first. This strategy seems quite appropriate, as Bittersweet serves to remind us that the happiest moments of our lives tend to come not when we reach our absolute peak, but when we realize that at long last, the worst is over.