In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
The early-’90s country boom was driven primarily by Garth Brooks, whose monster sales led the curious to other acts who’d blended poppier sounds with the sorts of traditional “tales of the heartland” lyrics country music had always excelled at. Yet when it came to artists out of the new boom who could be enthusiastically embraced by music critics, one of the foremost was Mary Chapin Carpenter. The daughter of an executive for Life magazine, Carpenter came to country music via oblique angles, having not risen out of the Nashville club scene. Her music blended country music instrumentation with strong folk influences, including a willingness to dabble in more political and feminist themes that was unusual for the popular country music of the period. She never pushed too much, thus allowing her to feed mainstream country radio stories of women dissatisfied with the lives they’d been told to lead; Carpenter’s music opened doors for later artists like the Dixie Chicks.
The height of Carpenter’s approach was “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” off 1992’s Come On, Come On. Nominated for the Grammy for Record of the Year, the song was both a high-water mark for Carpenter’s career and the nascent ’90s country movement. Via the standard steel-guitars-and-keyboards approach used in many of the popular country songs of the time, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” paints a rollicking picture of a perfect family where the wife is slowly realizing just how little she wants anything in that picture. Married at 21, the song’s protagonist has three kids before 30, then spends the next several years slowly realizing how unhappy she is. The first verse paints the perfect picture, and the second shows the cracks in it, concluding with the wife meeting her husband at the door, to tell him, “I’m sorry, I don’t love you anymore.” It was a big moment for the country music of the period, striking back against the “Stand By Your Man” image the genre’s female artists had often courted.
The genius of the song, though, is that Carpenter doesn’t end in that moment of forced girl power. Her feminism extends beyond women realizing they can seize their own destinies, to the society that makes those stifling lives seem so inescapable in the first place. In the song’s bridge, the newly liberated protagonist finds herself cast into a working world where the only job she can find is a minimum-wage typing-pool position. It’s a contrast that could be bitter, but it’s met by the jubilation of the chorus, including a backing vocal that functions as a metronome (fitting, given the song’s refrain of “Everything runs right on time”). Maybe not everything is roses, but it’s better than being trapped.