Well, I’ve never covered a live album before, but there’s a first time for everything, and the latest record from Crystal Bowersox is certainly a fine place to start. This is one of those times that I’m so thankful for this platform because I get to share cool discoveries like this album that people might not know about. Recorded at the Kitchen Sink Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for sixty fans over the course of three shows, this isn’t your typical live album; it’s got some material previously recorded by Bowersox, but much of the record consists of new songs, and also, it’s an intimate recording rather than a stadium show, and Crystal seems to thrive in this setting.
The album is entitled Alive for obvious reasons, but Crystal has also said it has to do with her current state of mind.
For the first time, “I feel as though I am fully living, now. I am grateful for every waking moment, even the days when the rain seems to pour. I think that often times we forget how precious every gradient layer of life is. If it weren’t for the emotional pain we sometimes must endure, we wouldn’t have a darn clue how to appreciate the joy and fulfillment available to us in between the difficult times. Learning to live with an open heart is only terrifying if one is unwilling to see the valuable lessons that despair and darkness have to offer. I want to feel it all. To me, that is what it means to be alive.
And that joy in being alive and feeling it all comes out all over this record. Sometimes, it’s in songs themselves, like “Dead Weight,” where Crystal advises her son to let go of the trouble and doubt weighing him down, or “NO Mistake,” where she sings about making bad choices in her life but knowing that her son was not a mistake and was meant to be here. This one, with its unflinching details about the town saying she was drunk and being asked by her ex to have an abortion, is one of the highlights of the whole thing. Sometimes, the “alive” feeling just comes out in Crystal’s interaction with the audience; she tells them all about her love for sweatpants and bacon before the fun, relaxing “Staycation,” asks them “who’s here on a date?” and lets them know that “married dates count people” before launching into the simple, sweet love song “Mine all Mine,” and later says, “Life is short, and so am I.” It’s these little reflective moments that add to the songs to express so well the contentment Crystal Bowersox is feeling and which ultimately give the album a unique touch that wouldn’t be present in the studio.
But being alive also comes with pain, as Crystal Bowersox points out in the quote above. The acoustic songs “Marlboro Man” and “Let me Walk Away” come together in the heart of the album to best illustrate this side of life. The former was written for a friend going through a painful breakup who considered ending her life, and the latter, Crystal’s personal favorite, is another breakup song, this one more specific in nature as the narrator reflects on the end of a relationship after “there was once a time I thought that I would be your bride.” I should point out that perhaps the greatest asset to this entire album is the power and emotional expression in Crystal’s voice, and her uncanny ability to draw you in while also singing the hell out of a song technically is best displayed here. Incidentally, for the strict traditionalists, these two make the most country moment on the record as well. Crystal’s voice and songs range from country to pop to soul, and she executes it all very well, so I don’t really want to focus too much on that, but if it’s country you’re seeking, do start with these two.
There’s also a side to being a live and feeling it all that comes with understanding the consequences. That’s best expressed in the excellent, soulful opener, “The Ride,” during which Bowersox sings about knowingly going after a man who ended up being trouble. Her mom warned her against him, but the woman in the song just wanted to experience it all; the cool part of this is that she’s fully aware it’s not the best decision, but she’s ready to face that head-on, saying that she “bought that ticket,” so she’ll “ride that ride.” This song is really about the consequences of one night, but we also have “Now That You’re Gone” later on the album which seems to be a more reflective, relationship-oriented companion to this one as Bowersox sings about a relationship that went wrong and calls it “the face of my regret.” There’s also some of that in the aforementioned “Marlboro Man,” as Crystal sings, with all the regret and pain of the song captured in one line, “he could be well worth your broken heart, but it won’t kill you if you don’t start.”
This album does a great job exploring what it means to be alive and experience all the joy and pain that life has to offer. Crystal Bowersox has clearly reached a place of contentment in her life, and her decision to record this live serves all the more to try to pass that contentment on to her listeners. Spend time with your family on a “staycation” eating bacon and sitting around in sweatpants. Look for someone who loves you like the one described in “He Calls me Angel,” and love them even if the “cupboards are bare” like in “Mine All Mine.” Look for that, but learn to live independently like the bus driver from American Idol that Crystal sings about in “Arlene.” Make some mistakes like the woman in “The Ride” and let go of your “dead weight,” but understand the blessings in life like Crystal advises us in “NO Mistake.” Mourn when the time is right, like the narrator of “Let me Walk away.” But even then, and always, sing; like the best song on the album says, “even the bird with a broken wing sings from the ground.” And yeah, I purposely didn’t mention that one before because not only is “A Broken wing” the best song, it’s also the thesis of this whole thing. And that’s why, even though it’s not a perfect album, Alive is such a special one. I think it will fly under the radar for a lot of people because it’s a live album, but that would be a shame because it’s a truly wonderful experience, and the idea to record it in this way only serves to add to its beauty. It’s not just an album recorded live, it’s an album about being alive and living in the moment, captured in a moment in time between Crystal Bowersox and an audience, and shared with you so that maybe you could take something from it and experience the same joy in living that she herself has found.