Better Than Home, the new album from blues stalwart Beth Hart, is a quiet achiever of a record. It never announces its own greatness, or overwhelms the listener. Its pleasures are simple, and Hart’s control of her material is at once powerful and yet understated. Although the album does occasionally feel a little slight, on the whole, it’s a solid, determined little number.
Album opener Might As Well Smile sets the tone nicely; it’s a rollicking, powerful example of the blues that benefits from solid instrumentation and a finely crafted lyric. Although a certain kind of pain sits just under the surface of the song, this isn’t an agonized track; it’s an upbeat hopeful tune, with a stirring refrain that promotes a kind of world-weary optimism.
Indeed, the album is nothing if not optimistic. Even when some of Hart’s tracks start off seemingly downbeat – Tell ‘Em To Hold On begins with fragile piano work, as does the impressive St Teresa – they inevitably build to impressive, life-affirming climaxes. Hart embraces her own frailties and faults with an endearing, wide eyed honesty, and although the tone of some of the songs does occasionally seem melancholic, they never feel weak or overwhelmed. Hart knows she’s done wrong, but she knows she’s done right too, and seems well aware that the future is ultimately unwritten. On songs like We’re Still Living In the City or The Mood That I’m In she faces the future with a brave, hopeful attitude, determined to be the best person she can be.
However, although this optimism is frequently successful, every now and then the record oversteps itself, and falls straight into the category of cliché. The energized strains of Trouble are initially impressive, but ultimately the song feels like a re-treading of overworked elements of the genre. Even Hart’s impressive vocals don’t save the tune from mediocrity. Similarly, whereas so many other tracks on the album benefit from being understated, Tell Her You Belong To Me is more underwhelming than anything else.
But two missteps in a ten track album is pretty good going, and Better Than Home’s successes far outweigh the record’s disappointments. It’s an impressive, adult work; as sincere as it is hopeful. But, what else would one expect from Hart, an artist who hasn’t turned in a dud record yet?