[4 September 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
George Strait’s new album sports a one-word title that could be read as a statement of definition: Twang. It’s somewhat like his last album title, Troubadour. In both cases, the title song begins the proceedings, setting the tone. “Twang” the song does have twang to it. His singing piles it on, while the song rolls by quickly. But mostly the song is a tribute to “twang”, to real country country music. To beer-drinking music, foot-stomping music, and the sound a guitar makes when it’s crying. “Twang” is one of the twangiest-song on Twang, and one of the most rambunctious. The rest of the album is heavier on ballads, as is Strait’s wont. But overtly twangy or not, the whole of Twang has a classic country feeling. These could be the songs that “Twang”’s fictional barflies are listening to on the jukebox, spending their five dollars of quarters on.
I like the economy of the title Twang; it gets right to the point. The same can be said for most of the album’s songs. The songwriting, like many of the arrangements, is efficient, even minimalist. In a song like “Hot Grease and Zydeco”, a Cajun-flavored stomper clearly meant as a “look what else I can do?” showcase of diversity, that simplicity can be, well, simple. But on the best songs, mostly ballads, that lean approach leads to elegance, to delivering many feelings and stories with a small number of words.
“Easy As You Go” tells a fairly standard teen pregnancy story, with a life-keeps-rolling-on morale, but the ease and matter-of-fact-ness of the song make it feel less trite. “Where Have I Been All My Life” is even better at using comfort and terseness to strongly outline the emotions of the song. It helps that the lyrics are specific enough to make the protagonist’s look back at his life resemble concrete observations, not empty sawhorses. The last verse stands out in that regard:
I heard “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong
It brought a tear to my eye
After all these years I finally get that song
Where have I been all my life?
The best song on the album may be its first single, “Living for the Night”, an impeccable example of how to make a textbook country-music subject—heartbreak—feel fresh and alive, and to do so quietly, without excessive decoration. A languid pace and Strait’s calmly expressive singing provide both a melancholy air and the night-time setting of the title. The lyrics handily portray a heartbroken man escaping into darkness, and into the comforts of nightlife. “Every night I venture out into those neon arms that hold me tight” is a memorable way to put it. The song has a wealth of day-night/life-death oppositions, meeting a head within one man’s mind. At night, “whiskey kills the man you turned me into / and I come alive”, Straits sings, evoking a monster-movie scene. But the monster is a man of deep sorrow, hurt and loneliness. The neon lights are his transformation, his door to feeling like himself again.
That song was written by Strait himself, his son Bubba, and veteran songwriter Dean Dillon, a fixture in Strait’s career. Bubba Strait was the sole writer of the outlaw tale “Arkansas Dave”, another fine example of the album’s less-is-more approach. A classical cowboy revenge story, it’s told in two verses and two variations on a chorus. This is the sort of song that many a songwriter would be tempted to stretch out into an epic. Its compact scope is complementary.
Dillon was one of three writers behind “The Breath You Take”, possibly the album’s best example of minimalist storytelling. Built around the sentiment “life’s not the breaths you take / but the moments that take your breath away”, it tells two father-son anecdotes, spanning 15 years’ time, and then at the end throws in a third one that completes the story in just seven words. In one fell swoop those words surprise (an attempt to take the listener’s own breath away, perhaps), justify the dramatic tone of the song, and give the chorus more meaning.
“The Breath You Take” is built around a play on words, and so are several of the other songs and lyrics, from “I gotta get to you ‘cause you sure been getting’ to me” to “he’s got that something special / but that something special used to be mine”. That’s a hallmark of country-music songwriting: taking daily life sentiments and ways of speaking and turning them around. In that regard, Twang is a showcase for the songwriting talent that still thrives in Nashville.
For all the ways it is typical of both Nashville and Strait, Twang takes bigger steps towards variety than most of Strait’s other albums. That variety – especially when taken along with the jukebox tribute of “Twang”, the Louis Armstrong reference in “Where Have I Been All My Life”, and the honeytonk tone of “Same Kind of Crazy”—makes Twang seem like a tribute to music itself, to its power. Besides “Hot Grease and Zydeco” and a few numbers touched lightly by jazz, there’s the surprising closing number, “El Rey”. It’s a Mexican folk song by Jose Alfredo Jimenez that Strait, singing in Spanish, performs as such: straight-ahead. It’s an admirable move and a solid if not show-stopping performance that brings the album to an end on a lively note. Jimenez, a legend, is said to have composed 1,000 songs. It sure seems like Strait has recorded, though certainly not written, almost as many. Twang adds 13 more songs to his legacy, without detracting from it in any way. Some of these songs are as good as anything he’s done, which is saying something.