Never a Long Way Home
Confession: I don’t know much about country music, and I don’t listen to much country music. But I know what I like, and Steff Mahan’s Never a Long Way Home is damn good music.
The opening track, “If I Let You Go,” starts things off rockin’. Mahan bangs away on a distorted guitar while belting out the lyrics. The song is upbeat, but the story isn’t; the narrator can’t let go of a past relationship even though her former lover is with someone new. Now, “sitting in the ashes of what we used to be” she laments her lost relationship but cannot move on because “I still believe you’ll be coming back for me.” Despite the unrealistic sentiment, the fabulous hooks and passionate vocals pulled me into the song.
“Can’t Hurt Me Anymore” is a toe-tapper about strength and recovery; an understated violin mixes seamlessly with the strumming guitar. Besides being a great song musically, it’s a welcome change to hear a country song about a woman standing up for herself rather than the waiting for her one true love or wallowing in pity. “I survived you because I finally found my truth / you can’t hurt me any more,” Mahan sings with pride.
The title track has an honest to goodness country feel and allows Mahan to demonstrate her talent for storytelling. She tells three vignettes about runaways seeking to return home: a teenage girl who runs away to the city; a husband who leaves a troubled marriage; and a woman on her deathbed. In each instance, the prodigal is welcomed home (to heaven, in the last case). The touching “Carnival Ride” centers on a shy girl’s childhood memories of her father, particularly the piggyback rides he gave her. “He’d spin me around and the world would go by / I swear, man, you could see me fly / we’d fall gently and laugh until we cried.” The slow and reflective, nostalgia-tinged tune aches with sincerity.
“Thought We Were Dancing” is another beautiful song about falling in love and how it can sneak up on us and cause confusion. Mahan succeeds in crafting a song that is romantic but not sappy. The slow and introspective “Save Yourself” is another highlight, full of wonderful imagery that illustrates the rush of infatuation and intimacy at the start of a new romantic relationship. The details are lovely, such as the description of a shared shower: “You draw some hearts on the glass / reach for a towel / and I pull you back.”
The slow-paced “When I Need It Most” is reminiscent of Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough” not in musical terms but lyrical content: it’s a plea to be understood and loved despite one’s glaring faults and insecurities. “So I pick fights / and then I shove /… do you love me when I’m scared and when I’m broken? / When words need to be spoken? / Just pull me into you and hold me close / and love me when I need it most.” The prominent violin adds to the ambiance.
Recorded live, the album includes charming snippets of Mahan and her band, as when she exclaims “I just broke a string!” These interjections give us a sense of closeness and gives the album more of a human touch. If you like a no-holds-barred song or a beautiful ballad, chances are you’ll enjoy this album.