In 2010 or so, the most popular artists on the playlist for car rides with my 10-year-old daughter Jane were Taylor Swift, on her third album by then, and the Band Perry, still on their first. For a moment, Swift and Kimberly Perry seemed to be bookends: lanky blondes who did a lot of their own writing. The Band Perry put out two excellent albums, then managed to thrash around for a decade with nary a follow-up. We've been awaiting a re-emergence all these years.
BP consisted of Kimberly Perry and her two younger brothers, Reid and Neil; Kim was definitely the star. They had a very peculiar sensibility. Kim looked like the most wholesome Southern belle you ever did see, a real whitebread Mississippi debutante. But her theme, over and over, was death. BP's career song was Kimberly's self-penned "If I Die Young," which is the sort of item people remember for decades. The surprising platinum success of that single may have suggested to her that death was an underexplored theme in recent country music.
"Death" sort of became the Band Perry's trademark: goth country inspired maybe by Edgar Allan Poe, if not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here and there they even messed around even with murder-suicide. These were not Swift's themes, putting it mildly. "Here lies a girl whose only crutch was loving one man just a little too much," was a typical flourish. After that, she married and divorced MLB pitcher J.P. Arencibia, but everyone seemed to survive.
She's still at it on the EP Bloom, the best thing (sometimes it seems like the only thing) she's done in the last decade and her second explicitly solo project, which represents the inevitable return to the mode that made her famous. In this case the return is literal, including "If I Die Young, Pt. 2." Really, if that was your career song and then you lived to 40 and were raising a baby, you'd have to do a re-write too. "It's too late, anyway, to die young," she points out.
I've had time to bloom
Planting them roses instead and
I'm changing my tune
From when I said
If I die young
Bury me in satin
Lay me down on a bed of roses
Sink me in the river at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song
The sharp knife of a short life
Now I know there's no such thing as enough time
I'm looking more like my mother
I love her to the bone
I know it's gonna kill me on the day she goes home
I'll pour some holy water on the daughter of my own
I'll pass my name down before it's on a headstone
It was so dramatic
Beautiful but tragic
Throwing my emotions in a poem 'bout a casket
It's a surprising and thoughtful act of musical memoir, and a lovely recapitulation of a lovely song. But on the other songs on Bloom, she returns to her blonde darkness, and the original sound of the Band Perry. This was always going to be where she ended up.
Rick Rubin produced their second album, the fine Pioneer (2013), which was still in a traditional country mode. But that was also the moment that Swift was deciding to go pop, and I'm sure everyone, or at least her management team, wanted Kimberly to do likewise. That was part of what led to the decade-long thrashing about. The Band Perry announced a pop album, and some cuts from it appeared online here and there. Then they withdrew it. Kimberly was always basically a solo act, and Rubin produced her EP Coordinates in 2018. That one completely vitiated her persona and her voice, making her (like most everyone else) an auto-tune cyborg.
But this spring, Kimberly Perry made her debut as a solo artist at the Grand Ole Opry, in an obvious return to country. All five of the songs on Bloom are strong, and the themes are oddly familiar to people who were listening to country radio in 2010, or reading Poe in 1850: "Ghosts," say, or "I'll Cry at Your Funeral" (though not that hard). And the persona might be getting even more compelling: blonde mommy is a goth! Wait. What? And she's capable of writing herself beautifully into the contradiction, as on Smoke 'Em Too.
I want heaven on earth, a home by the ocean
A house in a field with the marigolds growing
I wanna wear lace, I wanna wear white
And ripped blue jeans just a little too tight
I wanna be married, I wanna be a mama
Stay young forever, green like marijuana
I can be both at the same time
I can be yours, I can be mine
Tonight, I don't have to choose
Sometimes gettin' what you want means there's something you gotta lose
But right here in your arms, there's nothing I can't do
I can quit cigarettes and smoke 'em too.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell