Confessional albums are certainly nothing new in the singer/songwriter idiom, but there’s a continuum. I mean, there are personal songs, and then there are songs that take your breath away with their honesty. Mary Gauthier’s seventh album, The Foundling, will leave you gasping for 46 minutes and 37 seconds.
Gauthier has lived a life straight out of a country song — she spent her 18th birthday in jail; she opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston; she didn’t start writing songs until she was in her 30s — but all those colorful details pale before The Foundling, which tells her most personal story. Given up for adoption shortly after birth, Gauthier struggled with what she calls “the ‘orphan feeling'” for most of her life. At the age of 45, she was finally successful in finding her birth mother, only to discover that she’d kept Gauthier’s existence a secret from everyone in her life, including her deceased husband and grown children. Denied a meeting, Gauthier had to heal herself the only way she knew how: with music.
It’s a sad story, but make no mistake, The Foundling is a cathartic album; it’s shot through with mournfulness and a desperate longing to be loved, but there’s a grace to the sadness. There’s no bitterness here, only unblinking reflection. When she sings “I still believe in love” toward the end, you know Gauthier has come by that belief the hard way, and you feel richer for sharing her journey. Heartbroken, but richer. And heartbroken in a good way — it’s important to stress that even though The Foundling probes a profound wound in its creator’s heart, it’s a warm, uplifting piece of work, and one drawn across the spectrum of Gauthier’s musical roots. You hear a lot of country-inflected folk, with high harmonies and keening, whipsawing fiddles, but there are also hints of her New Orleans heritage (the drunken carousel of “Sideshow”) and moments of pure, stark, simple beauty (“Blood Is Blood,” “Walk in the Water”). And the album’s emotional centerpiece — the one-sided conversation “March 11, 1962” — will cut you wide open.
It isn’t the kind of album that’s destined to be a hit, obviously. But if songwriting matters to you, and you look to music to move you, then The Foundling is a gift you’ll cherish for a good, long while.