Monday, March 16, 2015

album review: 'complicated game' by james mcmurtry

It's rare that country music gets angry these days. You know, get the blood pumping for a righteous cause, something that might cause someone to load up a shotgun, grab a bottle of hard bourbon, and roll out to kick some ass. The part of me that loves outlaw country has a certain fondness for this brand of music, but it's gotten increasingly rare in the modern day, especially when the causes behind said songs tend to develop an isolationist streak that doesn't wear well. Like it or not, most of country is a conservative genre, and considering most country songwriters don't tell dark stories any more, it means that anger can come across as reactionary, and that rarely works out well, especially when the cause can be less than just.

And let's be clear, this has been an issue for decades now, but a particularly ugly side of it reared in the mid-2000s, because country was a genre that got increasingly torn on political lines. As much as I don't like the Dixie Chicks, there was a certain righteous rage to 'Not Ready To Make Nice' at getting tarred and feathered by the country establishment for being anti-Bush on the War on Terror. Now history has vindicated The Dixie Chicks years too late for it to matter, but the issue I always took with their statements, musical or otherwise, was that their framing could come across as a little preachy. Which, really, is a classic example of the biggest and most accurate criticism hurled at liberals these days, in that they're not populist and consider themselves above the discourse. If liberals are so smart and want to help everyone, why do we talk down to the audience or not show real empathy?

You want to know who did this approach a lot better? Singer-songwriter James McMurtry, born in Texas, originally a country singer in the 90s, but it wasn't until 2005 and his critically acclaimed album Childish Things that he really struck gold with songs like 'We Can't Make It Here Anymore' that struck the perfect balance and was named by acclaimed music critic Robert Christgau as the best song of the decade. Nuanced, harshly critical and pointing the finger at the right people, framed as speaking with the people and not down to them, and with a real simmering undercurrent of rage that underscored every brutal detail of his material. It also helped matters he was a great songwriter who had excellent production, a ton of texture, and solid hooks - the man didn't just write great music, he wrote great stories with detail and humanity that you could easily imagine. Throw in thematic cohesion and a solid as hell performance and you can bet he won me over.

Now he followed Childish Things with Just Us Kids in 2008, which kept the sharp writing but cranked up the anger a little hotter with harsher, more aggressive grooves - all positives, I might add - but then for nearly seven years, he seemed to disappear, with only a live album holding us over. And yet now one of the best songwriters in the industry is back with a brand new record - does the fire hold now that Bush and Cheney are long gone?

Well, I wouldn’t say the fire has gone out so much as it has changed and shifted, becoming more weathered and tired. Sure, we’re not getting the direct political tracks, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t social commentary – it’s just filtered through a different lens, not as swampy and rugged and seething with rage but tempered with the weary resignation that comes with age and time. James McMurtry had titled his last two records Childish Things and Just Us Kids – and while he’s always been more mature than the titles implied, this is the one where the framing really changed. So is it as good? Well, in a way it’s hard to gauge – there was an immediacy to the punch of Just Us Kids that isn’t here and I’m not sure there’s a classic song like ‘We Can’t Make It Here Anymore’, but it doesn’t mean this record isn’t damn great all the same, a definite standout thus far this year in terms of country music songwriting and storytelling that I’m glad I could finally cover.
So what has changed here since 2008? Well, the first shift is in the instrumentation – the choice to ease back on the politically-tinged anger means more of this album takes a slightly laid back, more acoustic leaning approach, although we do get some thicker, roiling grooves on the solo of ‘She Loves Me’ or the swampy ‘How’m I Gonna Find You Now’ with its bassline. But that’s not saying there isn’t variety to the instrumentation or the great warm organic texture hasn’t been preserved in a way that balances gritty percussion and guitars where every strum is captured. The organ elements on ‘You Got To Me’ and ‘Carlisle’s Haul’, the steel-guitar on ‘South Dakota’, the doo-wop elements of ‘She Loves Me’, the thicker, heavier tones of ‘Copper Canteen’ and ‘These Things I’ve Come To Know’, and especially those Uillean pipes on ‘Long Island Sound’. Like most of McMurtry’s work it falls more on the balance of acoustic folk than pure country, but now the blend is even more pronounced thanks to the stronger acoustic focus, and McMurtry’s subtle balance of emotions he can convey through his rough-edged yet smoother vocals is damn impressive. If I were to nitpick here, I would say I do miss some of the harder-edged and lo-fi elements that came from McMurtry’s own production in comparison to that of C.C. Adcock, but it does fit more given the subject matter on display.
So let’s talk about the songwriting, shall we? Now I could go on about McMurtry’s brand of well-articulated and excellently framed poetry for hours – this guy doesn’t just have an incredibly solid grasp of meter and flow, but the stories that he tells have layers of complexity, flawed narrators that reveal more about themselves within the details than they would probably intend to let on. One of the distinctive things about McMurtry is that when he writes from the first person, he’s not always writing ‘his’ story, but from narrators that could range from fishermen to a soldier coming home to the cold, drought-ridden prairie of South Dakota to a Long Island middle-class businessman with kids who left his home in Oklahoma behind. And it’s important to note there’s more detail than narrative on this record – he’s aiming to set scenes, capture moments, fragmented pictures that have a lot hidden between the lines. And more importantly, he doesn’t frame the narrator as always being in the right or having always made the right choices – hell, you could make the argument that he is more of an observer than active participant in these stories, which weakens the dramatic stakes.
But I’d argue there’s more to it than that, which leads to a discussion of themes. Now I get the feeling McMurtry himself would argue each song is a self-contained story and that looking for an overarching point is probably reaching. And you know, it probably is, but there does seem to be a thematic undercurrent to this record, and that is maturity and time. It’s something that seems to have crept up on our narrators, almost out of nowhere, precious time wasted or just slipped away. Take the pseudo-wedding song ‘You Got To Me’, where he’s watching an old flame get married – but there’s not really anger or bitterness to the song, just a sense of wistful longing, a reminiscence of that memory. It’s a sign of maturity that crops up again on tracks like ‘She Loves Me’, where his partner seems to have a fling that the narrator is well-aware of, and yet he knows she’ll return because she does love him. ‘These Things I’ve Come To Know’ is similar albeit simpler – it’s a song admiring a girl, but less for her body and more for her self-reliance and street-smarts, things that people value more as you get older. But how much we value that maturity and time is a different question entirely, from the desire to head to a simpler time on ‘South Dakota’ to the musing on remembrance after dying on ‘Deaver’s Crossing’. But the album really lands its hardest blow on ‘Long Island Sound’, which begins with a fragment of a song the narrator once wrote but never sang as life caught up with him, a good job and kids he needs to take to soccer practice, and a simpler, rougher life he left behind. And what I find fascinating about the song is that it doesn’t take a side in its tone – it shows his frustration and longing for the past, an antiquated past represented by a shrill mother saying the kids will not have a grounding in faith because they don’t go to church, but also by the guitar in his closet and what he finds in his truck hunting for the jack – but the song also points out the good things he’s gotten in Long Island in security and stability. It’s that commitment to showing both sides of the story that makes Complicated Game, well, complicated, but that’s a natural factor of maturity, especially when you feel caught up by life and don’t have the same flexibility to change at a whim. If anything is to remain sacred, it’s that which shouldn’t change – history, which only exists as long as we fight to preserve it. And while we can look at it with fresh eyes and greater perspective, we shouldn’t let it go, because it shapes us and the culture around us, gives us a window to a simpler time – in short, it made us who we are.
In short, James McMurtry’s Complicated Game might have taken a long time to get here, but oh god, it was worth it. A stunningly well-written, excellently performed, genuinely deep record that shows he can transition from political fire into something more small-scale, yet no less human and powerful. For me, it’s a light 9/10 and an extremely high recommendation – folks, we haven’t had a lot of country records yet this year, and even here I feel I’m a little late to the punch, but trust me when I say that James McMurtry’s Complicated Game is definitely worth your time.

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