Sam Baker has been working on a trilogy of albums about mercy, and Cotton is the final remarkable entry in that project (his 2004 debut Mercy kicked it off, followed three years later by Pretty World). Indeed, it's an ambitious project for a songwriter to commit to one theme for three albums, but Baker delivers swimmingly yet again.
Love and Mercy
The whole disc opens with a haunting and brief cover version of "Dixie" (purchase/download
), sung by a woman in round with herself. The lyrical themes of this tune return throughout the disc, most remarkably at the end of "Moon" (purchase/download
), when Baker repeats the line: "Look away, look away," as if we're actually being encouraged to ignore injustice and other unfortunate things. It brings new meaning to the opening song, an old standard.
"Who's to say what love is?" Baker asks in the song/poem "Mennonite" (purchase/download), backed by a repetitive fiddle line that he doubles with guitar for an introspective solo. It feels like the thematic question of the whole record, not in a tone that questions love's validity or very existence, but one which perhaps leaves you with the very subjectivity of emotion. Baker's lyrics are provocative and memorable, referencing the relationship between love and mercy, the commonalities among all people, and life's little struggles. They also reference other stories and songs common to the American songbook.
The Bottom Line
This is not an album to stick on in the background. While the music is lovely and inventive, and songs like "Who's Gonna Be Your Man" (purchase/download
) can come off lighthearted and whimsical, there is so much going on in this record that it pays off much more to sit and intently listen. Even better if you listen intently several times. The stories Baker tells are set to grow over time. His instrumentation, while sparse, is creative and surprising.
That Baker was severely injured in a terrorist train bombing more than two decades ago and continues to grapple with his injuries only makes his ability to deliver such incredibly complex and provocative imagery in such a simple, straightforward way that much more compelling. You don't need to take his bio into consideration, though, to be moved by these stories. This album is exceptional in its own right, and is easily one of the best of the year.