On Smart Kid, the Clumsy Lovers’ seventh album, the band finally puts down a track that explains why you should take pride in your stumbling romantic ways. “This Is Clumsy Love” hits the definition sideways: “I fail to explain how I feel/ I submit that only proves that this is real.” Coordination, articulation, and precision—despite the most metrically-satisfying claims of poets—are no more necessary to music than they are to love, and across the course of 15 genre-eluding tracks, the Lovers set out to make that case.
Just one track after that defining, self-identifying one, the band presents “Rockefeller”, which, not surprisingly, isn’t an ode to the American oil aristocracy, but rather a guide to surpassing the spiritual richness of the stereotypical capitalist tycoon. Rejecting riches and swimming pools, the band explains, “You just sing from your heart, you’ll be richer by far/ Than Carnegie or Rockefeller.” While the sentiment is cliched (and only somewhat effective in its transmission), it pins down the Clumsy Lovers. They don’t intend to produce the most innovative or perfectly-crafted records you’ll hear. In fact, their label convinced them to actually think about how to record an album, instead of relying on their famous live-show energy to carry the process. While Smart Kid does show a sense of studio focus, it doesn’t lack the energy that allows the band the level of self-expression they desire.
Musically, the band doesn’t sound clumsy so much as scattered, and for them, it works very well. They start with a country foundation, add in some bluegrass, some Celtic, a little rock on the side, and keep the fiddle and mandolin busy. While the band shifts their aesthetic from song to song, they keep a central core to hold it in place. Even the instrumental “Cock of the North”, which opens with an Irish-folky melody shifts into a more typical Lovers’ groove within the first minute. The music on Smart Kid comes across familiar enough that it’s comfortable, but the band employs enough time-shifts and inventive songwriting to keep it interesting, too.
While each musician displays technical skill, no one stands out as the star. The band seems to have a focus on playing together. Unusual for a rock band, the guitar—which is almost always unplugged—takes a backseat. Andrea Lewis’s fiddle makes the most memorable melodies, but the Lovers perform more like a jam band that never jams. Still, there’s a sense of craft in each song that reveals their dedication to arrangement and piece-fitting.
If the group’s music shows care, its lyrics teaches us how to blow it off. “Bobby Banjo” opens the disc with a song about a simple boy who lost his sense of self in turning into what the world wanted. Essentially a sad track, the band throws in some humor by explaining that aliens helped him learn the questions to Jeopardy!. Bobby explains to his old townspeople: “Hey, it’s just me, old Bobby Banjo/ Except I married Claire Danes from My So-Called Life/ Green Men pronounced us, Bobby, Banjo, and TV star wife.” Giving up the banjo-picker’s basic life in the fields can have rewards, but only of the Rockefellerian kind.
Taking over for the male vocalists, Lewis takes another approach to this idea with her vocals on “Okay Alright”. Remaining torn between the comfort of pajamas and the respect of pearls, she offers up sarcastically that “I’m not what I am—I am what you see”. She considers changing into a well-dressed, “dignified” lady, and even consoles herself with the thought that “There’s dinner and drinks if I learn to cope”. She leaves off undecided, but declaring that she’s fit for the decision and emotionally strong, even asking a would-be comforter to leave because she’s fine. If her words suggest she might stumble, the music reminds us of the strength of her character.
That sort of strength is in the background of the album. When you’re self-assured and secure (even in indecision), you can offer up comfort to others. On tracks like “Smart Kid” and “Better Days”, the narrators see some rough times, but they’re always willing to struggle toward love or spiritual reward. The album closes with “Not Long for This World”, a suggestion to the defeated to look forward to something better to come. Although it would be easy to be served and wait at this point, the singer doesn’t offer that. Instead, he suggests taking the little time left to enjoy what’s around you. The brevity of life is the key to both withstanding pain and appreciating the good. It’s not the first time this idea’s been expressed, but rarely has it been done in such a Celtic-roots-country-bluegrass (and affecting) way.
So, do I have time to spin this disc once more?