Sunny Sweeney is a whip-smart Texan blonde whose last album, Provoked (2014), wittily outlined her ‘Bad Girl Phase’, which included sleeping with other gal’s husbands and ordering the non-working class to kiss her ass. But it also had too many unimaginative ballads to be as outrageous as it thought, and compared to the work of that other whip-smart Texan blonde, Miranda Lambert, it sounded positively tame.
Three years later we have Trophy, which has chosen to tack into much darker territory, with choppy waters guaranteed. Suicide, miscarriage, and substance abuse are just some of the themes at hand. They are treated with sincerity by Sweeney and her team of co-writers, whilst that voice, a beautiful timbre which has a newfound maturity, sails confidently through the songs and guides them to safety.
The centrepiece of the album is ‘Bottle By My Bed’, a trick title in that the desired bottle is one filled with baby’s milk. It’s a painful cry of maternal longing rooted in Sweeney’s thus far fruitless efforts to conceive with her husband. Written with Lori McKenna, a mother of five and yet an extremely empathetic voice, some of the language hits incredibly quick and deep, such as: ‘I only call my husband “baby” cause I love the word/Never wanted something so bad that it hurts’ or ‘Spend a lot of afternoons daydreaming ’bout you/Right now our mortgage is the only thing that’s due’. The classic country backdrop of steel guitars, wailing like mourners, and the constant, affectionate strum of the acoustic guitar ratchet up the poignancy to near unbearable levels – the thing’s an instant classic, simple as.
Other highlights on an album of near-constant interest are ‘Grow Old With Me’, another McKenna co-write that insists ‘love don’t give a damn about time’ and makes a youngster like me believe it, and ‘Nothing Wrong With Texas’, which uses a nostalgic, achingly gorgeous fiddle to demonstrate her pride in a home state that has a lousy reputation abroad. Then the album finishes on another emotional wrench, ‘Unsaid’, which chastises a friend for having committed suicide and left so many people, including two kids, behind, and with so many words unsaid.
But it’s not all doom and gloom y’all, and the jokes that propped up Provoked are in ample supply here (if less brilliantly perverse). Having stolen someone’s ex on the title track, she declares herself the man’s ‘trophy’, which only leads you to wonder who or what the other woman might have been. And ‘Better Bad Idea’ contains the unforgettable come-on ‘Let’s wash our dirty minds with a bottle of white wine/And do some things that we can’t take back’. Fiery at these moments and fiercely in control of her sexuality, we must wither in the heat of Sunny Sweeney’s charisma, whilst acknowledging that she will never reach the true danger of Miranda Lambert’s ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’.
Trophy is the usual mess of diverse topics and ballads/hoedowns, as with most country albums, but hell life is messy and these smartass Nashville women sure know it. So of course there are troughs – this is barnyard music, didn’t ya know? But there are also peaks aplenty, and the excitement of listening to a woman who is bold and brave, who has done enough to have earned life’s trophies. Including, I very much hope, in the near future a little Sweeney who might mark the contours of her next album.