Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr Kasey Chambers’ 2001 breakthrough Barricades and Brickwalls featured a smoldering backup band with bluesy, ominous guitar that made her come off like Iris DeMent singing Nick Cave. At her peak, the Australian singer sold almost as many records in her native land as Kylie Minogue, with music that comes closer to traditional American country music than most of what comes out of Nashville today. But on Bittersweet, Chambers’ first album since 2012, a failed marriage and a new producer results in an album that’s thematically ambitious but musically inconsistent. Chambers’ last album, Wreck and Ruin, was a collaboration with her now ex-husband Shane Nicholson, and it opened with the now ironic “‘Til Death Do Us Part.” The former couple also performed a duet as Adam and Eve on the album, though in depicting their exile they perhaps prophetically noted, “that ship has sailed.” It is in this context that Bittersweet opens, with a lyric that lives up to the album’s title: “Oh Grace my love/ I am weary/ I am poor/ I don’t have enough/ To embrace you/ Anymore.” Against spare accompaniment, Chambers sings of being stripped of possessions, and the song titles that follow point to an artist trying to recover from a failed physical union with a spiritual guidance. “Is God Real?” is about doubt, but the album unfolds as someone who’s engaged enough with the question of faith that the spells of doubt strengthen it. The trouble is, the music isn’t always inspired; it’s appropriately dirge-like, but it lacks the demonic energy of Barricades and Brickwalls and the easy camaraderie of Wreck and Ruin. As she sings phrases of “Is God Real?,” her drummer meets them with half-hearted cymbal taps. The lack of passion may conceptually suit a search for metaphysical meaning, but the album rarely has the musical conviction of her previous work. One exception is the sludgy blues rocker “Wheelbarrow,” whose music is as good as its lyrics, a deafening feedback suggesting the energy she’ll give to the child she wants to take in: “Gonna trade my wheelbarrow, baby for a homeless child …/ He’s gon’ be rich until my money’s gone.” More often, though, the music lacks the hammering and heartbreaking power of lyrical images like the “nails in my hands” on “I Would Do” or her plea to “find me a tombstone by tomorrow” on “Hell of a Way to Go,” which does have a catchy chorus. “Heaven or Hell” is a lighter highlight, its crossroads dilemma (“Where will you go?”) met by a solid hook. Spiritual music can be more powerful when it’s more seductive. When done right, spiritual music features a higher lyrical power met with musical gam, the spirit calling through the flesh and suggesting that the road to enlightenment isn’t just through the mind but the body: “One of these day I’m gonna have to get down on my knees and pray.” If the album is a concept about loneliness and longing, the title track, a duet with Bernard Fanning, is its centerpiece, but it’s weighed down by a maudlin tune. This is the first time Chambers, whose previous albums were produced by her brother Nash, has worked with Nick DiDia, who produced albums by Pearl Jam and Billy Joe Shaver. As that client list might indicate, DiDia encourages the kind of bombast that overwhelms the muddy outback naturalism that Chambers excels at. Bittersweet ends with the Dylanesque “I’m Alive.” It’s the most upbeat track on the album as well as is its most explicit depiction of her breakup: “I made it through the hardest fucking year.” The album isn’t an outright failure, but it is bittersweet indeed that her personal trials didn’t inspire a stronger album.