Whatever happened to the likely lad? Well, on the evidence of Greenland, it seems like David Lowery has spent the years since Cracker’s 2002 release, Forever, coming to terms with disappointments of one kind or another. Because this feels very much like a break-up album, or perhaps a response to the realities of mid-life.
Lowery and Cracker may have kept themselves busy during the years since Forever, but they haven’t really told us anything new. Also released in 2002, Hello Cleveland was a nice but inessential live album. The following year saw two further releases. Oh Cracker Where Art Thou? turned out to be a likeable bluegrass reworking of some of the band’s hits; while Countrysides was an irresistible collection of splendid covers, plus a highly amusing jape at the expense of Virgin Records. Last year, Live at Wavefest offered fans a belated opportunity to hear a performance from 1997 when, according to the cover, Cracker “actually sounded good”. And the recent Greatest Hits Redux was little more than a further, prolonged slap in the face with something unspeakable for Virgin Records.
So if you want to find the last time Cracker actually said something more than ‘Virgin Records can suck David Lowery’s dick’, you’d have to skip past the last five Cracker releases and Camper Van Beethoven’s 2004 concept album New Roman Times, and trip all the way back to Forever. So to speak.
Life is good.
When I’m with you
I don’t need
I just wanna live like this now and forever
Darling, we’re out of time
The sweet days of spring are gone
The wine that pours from the keg
Is bitter and dregs
—“Darling, We’re Out of Time” (Greenland)
Is it too fanciful to suggest that Cracker had concentrated on other people’s songs and reworking their own past glories because Lowery had lost the will to write? I don’t think so. But either way, Greenland is certainly the sound of a man waving goodbye to eternal youth, optimism, and a certain irreverent idealism. It’s the sound of a man who feels like he’s just lost big in both love and poker.
Thankfully, it’s also the sound of a band on top form, and a lyricist who’s regained his muse.
Despite Lowery’s engagingly off-beat and laconic way with words, Greenland still starts with someone else’s song. The token new song on Greatest Hits Redux, “Something You Ain’t Got”, is the only cover on Greenland, and it’s actually a perfect Cracker moment, with extra-added Caitlin Cary. It’s an easy-going countrified take on a song that was written but never released by West Virginia’s American Minor, and it serves as the perfect bridge between Countrysides and David Lowery’s new songs.
Well the first dance cost me a quarter
And the second dance cost me my heart
Now I’m here on this bar stool
Like a circle it ends where it starts
—“Something You Ain’t Got”
You’re everything I ever wanted
But I’m half of what you need
Building gently on the base established by “Something You Ain’t Got”, “Maggie” is mid-paced and graced with politely insistent guitars and deliberately lazy vocals. It’s also the first original Cracker song since 2002 not to offer Mister Roy Lott an exciting oral opportunity. Rather, it presents an admission that the singer is damaged, a plea for forbearance, and something of a typical travelogue with references to Aberdeen, Glasgow, and those dreadful Scottish pipers who annoy everyone but the deaf and the dead by torturing small animals in public.
By the time “Maggie” dwindles to its close, the stage has been set for another, more forceful travelogue. “Where Have Those Days Gone” sees Lowery take a traditional rock road-trip back to California to revisit past lives and to wonder whatever happened to a certain girl he knew. Seemingly both dispirited and yet reconciled, he protests, perhaps too strongly, that “it’s curiosity, that’s all, I swear”. It’s a wistful and enchanting song, something a little more than Cracker have offered before, and yet still defiantly Cracker all the same.
Headed up the coast with my only Jewish Mexican friend
Found a bar in Arcata, it was the means to an end
In the alley for a smoke, got beat up by some Aryan goons
Lying in my blood, I said, “Hey Juan, does this mean I’m still a gringo?”
—“Where Have Those Days Gone?”
These first three songs fully and firmly define Greenland as an authentic Cracker album with a mood and identity all of its own. As it develops further across the following eleven songs, it displays gentle touches, harsh Rory Gallagher-style blues-riffing, Syd Barrett moments, cod Old-Time and, above all else, a dimension beyond the casual excellence of previous Cracker albums. You could call it honesty, or maybe soul, but it’s all about the difference in the depth of emotion between oldies like “How Can I Live Without You” (The Golden Age) or “Another Song About the Rain” (Cracker) and cuts from Greenland such as “Night Falls” and “Darling, We’re Out of Time”. Previously, when Cracker did the lovelorn blues thing, we all knew it was just an act and grinned along accordingly. With Greenland, it’s all too obviously real.
Listening to Greenland over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to work out why Lowery decided to name this wide-ranging and complex collection of songs after an Arctic island nation when so much of it is set in Northern California and Spain, and I think I’ve finally got it. When you think about it, Greenland is a lot like life, really. It’s huge, but 85% of it is covered with ice and completely uninhabitable. It’s confusing. And it belongs to Denmark.
Greenland is too eloquent an album to have a single centrepiece song. “Darling, We’re Out of Time” might be its most succinct statement, but “Everybody Gets One for Free” is going to be the popular favourite. It’s a true complaint rock classic that sees Lowery stamping his tiny little feet at the sheer unfairness of life, the universe, and everything while tempering his self-pity with a trademark wit that’s turned both on himself and others.
I was driving in my car
It was filled up with yams
For no obvious reason
That’s just who I am
—“Everybody Gets One for Free”
Blessed with a unique brand of attitude, tradition, and humour, Cracker has always been one of the very best American rock bands. The long-awaited Greenland confirms this status and reveals that old dogs can learn new tricks. It’s a great record that rocks just a little less and hurts a whole lot more than we’re used to. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait forever for the next one.