On June 13, 1989, Mary Chapin Carpenter released her second album, State of the Heart. Carpenter co-produced the project her longtime collaborator, the late John Jennings.
State of the Heart combines instrumental flourishes from country and folk, and a foundation rooted in sturdy songwriting. The record ended up being Carpenter’s breakthrough, as it peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and spawned four Top 20 country singles.
The first of those hits, the brisk “How Do,” immediately signals that the album is something special. The twangy single, which peaked at No. 19, finds Carpenter chatting up a new face in town with bold, forward language: “So if you ain’t in a hurry, baby, just sit tight / I’m sort of in the mood to speak some French tonight / Et vous?”
State of the Heart‘s next single, the mid-tempo, piano-sprinkled “Never Had It So Good,” became Carpenter’s first Top 10 Billboard country singles chart hit, as it reached No. 8. Insightful but also ambiguous, the song is written from the perspective of a scorned woman whose boyfriend has just gone back to an ex. Although the song exudes resignation and hurt, there’s an intriguing twist at the very end: “But when she burns you again / And your phone doesn’t ring / Baby, it’s me.”
Does that mean the protagonist gave the new girlfriend some breakup-inducing intel? Or is Carpenter simply saying that bad karma comes around? As Carpenter told Rolling Stone in 1991, “Never Had It So Good” was based on a real-life relationship of hers: “I never imagined that it would get on the radio,” she admits. “I never meant to embarrass anybody … Songwriting is a personal endeavor; self-therapy, if you will.”
Other songs on State of the Heart also offer sudden pivots, such as “Goodbye Again,” the main character of which is a lonely woman who breaks her surface sorrow in a sudden flash of violence: “She made a fist last night / And she broke the hallway light and the pieces scattered everywhere.”
Yet even when her songs don’t have sudden emotional flips, Carpenter is adept at capturing the intricacies of sentimentality: “Something of a Dreamer” features a woman who is wistful about a relationship gone sour, even though a reconciliation isn’t in the cards; “Down in Mary’s Land” is about being content with your life and the direction it’s taken; and “This Shirt” fetes a well-worn item of clothing that’s full of meaning. ””This Shirt” is a song about how the most ordinary, quotidian object can hold meaning, memory and emotion in the recitation of its simple details,” Carpenter told Rolling Stone in 2018.
State of the Heart ended up being certified gold, as future singles “Quittin’ Time” (which peaked at No. 7) and “Something of a Dreamer” (No. 14) also became hits. At the 1990 ACM Awards, Carpenter was named Top New Female Vocalist. State of the Heart also ended up kicking off Carpenter’s most successful commercial period, as she followed up that effort with 1990’s Shooting Straight in the Dark (which features the Grammy Award-winning “Down at the Twist and Shout”) and 1992’s quadruple platinum Come On, Come On.
LOOK: All of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Albums, Ranked