Somebody sure must have really put the hurt on Alison Krauss.
Everything the bluegrass-pop diva sings on Paper Airplane, her first album with Union Station since 2004's Lonely Runs Both Ways, suggests a woman who's either just ended a love affair or is just about to. It's an album about being betwixt and between, and it could hardly be sadder or lovelier.
Having won 27 Grammy Awards, more than any other female artist, Krauss undoubtedly felt pressured to deliver something big — but Paper Airplane did not immediately take off. "After the first week," the singer recalled, "I said, 'We don't have it.'"
Worried, Krauss approached Robert Lee Castleman, the songwriter responsible for "Gravity" and other songs on Lonely Runs Both Ways. "I was going through a very low time for myself, and he says. ‘Come over and talk about what's going on,’ " Krauss said. By the end of the day, Castleman had written Paper Airplane's opening title track, a rainy-day epiphany of resignation and desire that ends with the bleak words, "Our love will die, I know."
Union Station might just as easily kicked things off with Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell," which, in Krauss' version, describes a man gently nudging her toward singlehood. Paper Airplane's real heartbreaker, however, is its centerpiece. Krauss described the emotions evoked by British songwriter Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" as "almost unspeakable. No woman wants to show that grief."
When Krauss isn't baring her heartache amid Union Station's flawless string-band tapestry, Dan Tyminski shakes things up with a booming twang, declaiming the working-man blues as a Depression-era farmer ("Dust Bowl Children"), an outcast ("On the Outside Looking In"), and a sailor married to his vessel ("Bonita and Bill Butler"). As Union Station dobro player Jerry Douglas says of Tyminski: "He's gonna put you in a different place so [Krauss] can come back and tear you apart again."
The only thing missing from Paper Airplane is traditional bluegrass music. The first Union Station album without any instrumental numbers, Paper Airplane focuses on Krauss' voice, with her fiddling nearly absent. The group's music swings with the familiarity of old friends in intimate conversation. But a band this good deserves the chance to stretch out once in a while, especially during a journey this emotionally intense.