Music

Erin Rae’s ‘Putting on Airs’ Unmasks the Truth

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It’s a fairly open secret that the “Nashville sound” we most often associate with ’60s country music was a response to rock’n’roll. Nashville execs ensured that the influence of black music would not be felt in country music. However, Erin Rae‘s new album, Putting on Airs, conjures an alternate universe where the traditional folk revival of the ’60s and the big sounds of Cold War country combine in a happy marriage. You may not be familiar with Rae’s work, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard her sing in the past — she’s collaborated with Margo Price and Andrew Combs. Putting On Airs feels as if it has all of Nashville’s weight behind it: it was recorded at singer-songwriter Cory Chisel’s The Refuge in Appleton, Wis. and is out on John Paul White’s Single Lock Records. It is an album that confronts and deconstructs the many facades that young women in particular build in order to navigate the world.

On the surface, many of these songs can be read as breakup songs — often with Rae doing the leaving. But Rae has a knack for shining a light on nuance. The album’s opener, “Grand Scheme,” lays out the general themes of the album. It’s a cinematic take on how the plans we make slowly crumble, whether it’s romance or the career that may need to supersede it. Rae uses the tension between what she wants and what she does instead as the guiding principle for Putting on Airs. While there are moments of guilt in that struggle, Rae also points to where these moments can be liberating. The title track is a majestic breakup song that not only announces the disposal of a clueless lover, but also Rae’s realization of her own self-worth:

You came to me, sweet honey
Someone who cares
I was putting on airs

Though Rae questions why her partner would continue to pursue a fruitless relationship, she also turns the magnifying glass to herself. It’s a clever move that gives her songs a true sense of depth: Rae is not only a character in her story, but a sensitive narrator who wants all of her subjects to be treated with dignity. Even in some of her more scathing songs such as “Like the First Time,” the gentleness and relaxed pace of the music helps to soften the blows of Rae’s cutting words. We get the sense that Rae is searching for the root of her malaise in herself as well as the people she encounters.

Read More: Hear Erin Rae’s ‘Can’t Cut Loose,’ a Striking Ode to Constant Yearning

The song that illustrates that search the most clearly, for me, is “Bad Mind.” In an interview with NPR’s Ann Powers, Rae explains that the song describes her struggles with internalized homophobia. It was the first time I heard a story similar to my own: in spite of growing up in a liberal community with supportive parents, Rae couldn’t shake the negative perceptions about herself as she was coming out. In the opening verses of “Bad Mind,” Rae recounts the story of her aunt and her aunt’s partner losing custody of their children because of their same-sex partnership. She seamlessly transitions to her own story: a reluctance to hold a high school crush’s hand and confess her feelings. In just a few verses, Rae eloquently illustrates how social pressures bigger than most of us can weigh down on our truest feelings.

While it’s only the third song in the album, it feels like the cornerstone. Rae explores how the masks she’s constructed to placate lovers and Nashville’s standards have harmed her. From having to hide herself as a young person, Rae and many other young people learned how to survive in a world that is hostile to the things that make us human. Putting on Airs may sound gentle, but it is a forceful argument for authenticity in a world that values the idealized over the flawed.

Putting on Airs Track Listing:

1. Grand Scheme
2. Putting On Airs
3. Bad Mind
4. Can’t Cut Loose
5. Love Like Before
6. June Bug
7. Mississippi Queen
8. Like The First Time
9. The Real Thing
10. Anchor Me Down
11. Wild Blue Wind
12. Pretend

Learn more about Erin Rae here.

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Erin Rae’s ‘Putting on Airs’ Unmasks the Truth