“The Foundling” is an autobiographical collection of songs in which Mary Gauthier describes how she was given up for adoption on the day she was born, and her attempts as an adult to find and make contact with her birth mother. It sounds sobering, and of course it is, but it’s a remarkable, touching and affecting album.
Gauthier dedicates the album to anyone who has suffered through adoption, not just adoptees but also birth parents and adoptive parents. While it’s easy to see how these songs would have particular significance for them, in truth they have emotional resonance far beyond that group. For she taps into emotions such as loss, despair, disconnectedness and alienation that even listeners entirely unaffected by adoption will still be able to relate to.
Although there’s a strong narrative thread running through the songs, Gauthier avoids the trap of wordiness, and shows she has not lost her gift for a good melody. Also, the production by Michael Timmins is outstanding. He creates a wonderfully haunting feel to “Mama Here, Mama Gone” with Margo Timmins on backing vocals and Josh Finlayson’s bass high up in the mix. For “Sideshow”, one of the best and cleverest tracks on the album, he brings in rinky dink organ and trombone accompaniment. It’s a thoughtful and considered song in which Gauthier acknowledges the perversity of making her living from parading her emotions on stage for the entertainment of an audience.
“March 11, 1962” is the emotional lynchpin of the album. The story behind the song is that, aged around 43, Gauthier employed a private detective to track down her birth mother. She phones her, only to be told that her mother has never revealed her existence to anyone, and doesn’t want any further contact. Gauthier sings that the call is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the heartbreaking lyrics conclude with Gauthier saying that she had to call just to thank her mother once, before saying goodbye. The following song “Walk In The Water” deals with the emotional aftershock, which left her exhausted, unable to cry and possibly contemplating suicide.
These songs are so personal, it’s a little surprising to find Gauthier has used co-writers on about half the songs. Her key collaborator seems to have been Ed Romanoff, who sings with her on “The Orphan King”, where she finds the courage to sing that, despite all she has been through, she still believes in love. If any criticism can be levelled at the album it is that, of necessity, the subject matter is dour, which will probably limit the potential audience. But then, as Gauthier herself sings, while a sunny song will help you through, too many songs about happiness can leave you sad, lonely and depressed.