Divorce hurts. You can hear it cracking Shannon McArdle's voice as she sings, “It's time we rode in a separate car, stayed in our own place” during “Stepping on My Heels,” on 30 Year Low. Whether or not it's what she intends, McArdle is announcing the dissolution of both the romantic and artistic partnership between her and Mendoza Line guitarist Timothy Bracy.
Many songwriters have recorded “divorce albums” — Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love are two famous examples — but it's one thing to write about your heartbreak, and another to do so while staring into the eyes of the person who caused it. Only Richard and Linda Thompson (the quintessential Shoot Out the Lights) have ventured into the brave and emotionally naked territory that Bracy and McArdle explore.
Musically, 30 Year Low is a brief whirlwind of an album. Its eight tracks blitz through languid country shuffles, dreamy piano-fueled reveries and rousing beer-raising anthems. The instrumentation is tight and solid: guitars, lap steel, pounding drums. What ties the songs together is regret. It seeps through both Bracy and McArdle's voices, giving them a weary tone. Even songs that are ostensibly about political issues, such as “Since I Came,” McArdle's moving epic about the state of undocumented immigrant workers in Georgia, highlight the heartbreak.
Accentuating this sense of isolation is the fact that McArdle and Bracy rarely sing together. For the vitriolic duet “Aspect of an Old Maid,” Okkervil River's Will Sheff steps in to sing the male lead. (An alternate version with Bracy singing the lead exists: the group's label Glurp posted it on its Web site.) For “Stepping on My Heels,” and the rocking “31 Candles” McArdle's vocals are doubled for harmony.
When 30 Year Low was first announced, rumors circulated that Bracy would continue Mendoza Line without McArdle. Since that time, Bracy has wisely reconsidered. Though McArdle didn't join the Mendoza Line until 1998, three years after its formation, she steadied its rock with her languid vocals and meditative songwriting. Continuing the band without her would been like sticking around the apartment you once shared happily with a long-gone lover: even if you stripped the carpet and reupholstered the furniture, you wouldn't be able to shake that sense of loss. As much as it hurts, the Mendoza Line needs to rest. 30 Year Low is the moving van that carts them into the sunset.