Before he began acting, screenwriting, and directing, Billy Bob Thornton carried on a torrid love affair with music, more wildly colorful than even his brief marriage to Angelina Jolie. Having started playing drums at nine years old, Thornton eventually graduated to playing in a ZZ Top tribute band that opened for such luminaries as Humble Pie, the MC5, Hank Williams, Jr., and Ted Nugent.
Somewhere along the way, he got sidetracked and took a detour into writing Oscar-winning screenplays and snapping up lead roles in a series of successful movies. In between all of the Hollywood hijinx, Thornton still found the time to get into the studio to cut an album or four.
Four solo albums later, the king of Sling Blade comes off with Beautiful Door. Unlike the seemingly endless stream of Hollywood denizens who have some sort of a musical project to pimp, Thornton’s music actually has depth and soul. His latest release, co-written by guitarist, Brad Davis, is indicative of a renaissance man who has a foot in several types of art forms and yet has his feet rooted comfortably down-to-earth. Blending the storytelling of folk and country with a twist of rock and honky tonk, Beautiful Door is a concept album about the many passageways in the whole of the human experience—most notably, life, the variety of doors which open and close to us during the course of our lives, and ultimately, that final door marked “death” and what lies beyond it. While still personal and soul-searching, the stories Thornton gives voice to on Beautiful Door aren’t told solely from a first person point of view. A cast of unnamed characters tell their tales to the listener with Billy Bob dropping in from time to time to get some things off his chest.
At the heart of the album, looms the overwhelming concept of death, the many forms it takes, and the effect it has on all involved. “It’s Just Me” manages to be sweet, stalker-ish, and sad at the same time. A song from beyond the grave in the voice of a suicide victim who keeps watch over a still-living lover, the track gives a sense of resolution to the tale of a penitent who is still searching for a meaning in life through the eyes of the woman he loved as he follows her in her own life.
“Restin’ Your Soul” could be the flipside to “It’s Just Me”, answering that song back and told from the point of view of those left behind following the death of a loved one. Linking the two songs together, both of the songs’ protagonists, the listener, and Thornton try to glean some deeper meaning, bringing home the point that sometimes the smallest, wrong turn of events ends up defining our lives as a whole. Accentuated by beautiful harmonies, the piece’s lyrics ponder the finality of death and what lies beyond: “I’ve always wondered if we black out and just go / That has always been my fear.”
One of the most jaw-dropping tracks on Beautiful Door in terms of subject matter, “The Boy Is Gone”, revolves around the death of a child. A mournful cry to the loss of his own youth and the death of his son, the grieving father on the song also notes the irrevocably changed state of his marriage. While musically, “The Boy Is Gone” doesn’t carve out a memorable memory, the song’s lyrics pack a devastating punch.
Fortunately, there are several noteworthy moments on Beautiful Door that are much more lighthearted. “I Gotta Grow Up” is fun and chock full of wry wit. Davis’ guitar work has an almost gypsy feel to it, offsetting nicely the ruminations of a guy who drifts from alpha female to alpha female and their effect on him.
“Hearts Like Mine” is a blend of traditional “tear in my beer” honky tonk and an oh-so-current blend of radio-friendly country ballads. There’s a faint trace of nasal in Thornton’s earnest vocals contrasted by a cadre of beautiful harmonies that echo along with the Hammond organ and lap steel guitar on the chorus.
Completing a trilogy of songs of self-examination of all too human traits, an ode to obsessive compulsive disorder, “Always Counting”, finds OCD represented even in the song’s musical composition with the sparsely jangling guitar chords, kick drum, and tambourine meticulously and rhythmically pounding out its beat.
Filling out the spectrum of human emotion, Thornton expresses a quiet rage on several tracks. Straddling the line between frustration and hopefulness, “In the Day” has a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers feel to it, reminiscing about better days that weren’t so long ago. Thornton vents his disappointment in the Walmart-ization of America and in turn, the slow siphoning of an original American town’s way of life. The track seems to assert that change, when positive, is a good thing. However, when change only succeeds in homogenizing a way of life, does more harm than good with heavy, jangling percussion punctuating each statement. The lyrics indicate a little more of a hopeful outlook than one of mere sour grapes.
Other tracks, express outright fury, albeit, the disc’s title track, “Beautiful Door” eloquently does so in a surprisingly lovely way as a slow, echoing ballad that takes religion and wars in the name of dogma to task. Thornton’s voice starts low, growing louder and constricted by mellow, melodic anger. Thornton ambiguously points the finger at politicians and religious extremists from both sides, each one speaking of a “Beautiful Door” that lies beyond in the form of reward of either unattainable peace on earth or the promise of a heavenly reward. Thornton’s well-justified tirade notes that ultimately, the innocent pay for the visions of these leaders in their pursuit.
On a less global scope, “Pretty People” tackles the media’s fascination with superficiality. Thornton observes the media’s gatekeeping that crefully filters everyday news stories to feature only the rich, powerful, and beautiful. Thornton and his band of not-so-merry (in this instance) musicians create a catchy ditty with Billy Bob tossing out one of the most venom-fueled lines to ever grace a song:“If your child goes missing / You gotta know / Better put out some fliers / Unless you’re rolling in the dough / You won’t get much help through the wires”.
While Thornton doesn’t possess a Roy Orbinson-esque range, neither did Johnny Cash. Billy Bob’s strong suit is his thoughtful and thought provoking lyrics, although voice is still surprisingly good. Initially hard to place, Billy Bob sounds like a more monotone version Neil Diamond with a Southern twang at times.
While Thornton sometimes sing-talks his way through some of the songs, he certainly doesn’t phone in his vocal performances, soaking each piece on the disc with the appropriate amount of emotion that the wildly differing songs call for. Nevertheless, Billy Bob’s folksy, yet real and conversational manner works well with his material. He still manages to hold down a melody and carries a tune rather well along with his band’s impressive instrumentation on Beautiful Door.
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// Notes from the Road
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