Good Intentions Ain't the Whole Story
O Rodney Crowell, why don’t I like you better than I actually do?
It can’t be your persona, because I love your persona: slightly hardened veteran of the country music wars, been around a bit, knows it’s all a dirty business but also knows that you can’t let the bastards get you down, a certain Zen detachment/engagement…. See, I love that.
And it’s certainly not your politics (defiantly Democrat and anti-Bush) or your bravery in expressing your views (volunteering to be the public face of the Music Row Democrats in 2004 when much of the rest of Nashville was going all red). I agree with the former and salute the latter.
And this is your most political album yet. You slam intolerance on the very first rockin’ cut (“I guess we had a little trouble in the hotel bar/ Some hometown bubba went a little too far/ He said he don’t like Catholics, he don’t like Jews/ He don’t like me and he don’t like you”) and go on to burn on the war in Iraq, the selfish complacency of the typical (rich) American, and a whole host of other sins. I should be jumping up and down screaming with happiness—hey, a good portion of me gets a thrill when I start listening to this record.
But, I have to say, I think you left the tunes at home this time. This is a great mission statement for enlightenment in this world of craziness, but as a record of actual songs, The Outsider doesn’t really make it. I loved “Earthbound” as a single off your last album as much for its Traveling Wilburys vibe as for the references to the Dalai Lama and Seamus Heaney and Aretha Franklin. And there are some pretty compelling things here: the propulsion of “Dancin’ Circles Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)” manages to sound more like the actual title rather than the pretentious parenthetical, and I’m really quite in lust with the gentle spill of “Beautiful Despair”.
But half the songs here have no recognizable melody, really. Don’t you think that the title track, which is admirably funky and muscular, would work a lot better if the verses were more than just tossed-off mumbles, or if the chorus was more than just repeating the title with new taglines every time? (NB: I love the phrase “huevos of brass”, can I steal that sometime?) Getting Emmylou Harris and John Prine to do spoken-word interventions on the hymn-like “Ignorance Is the Enemy” must have sounded like a great idea at the time, but it sounds more like you just couldn’t come up with a compelling melodic line. What gives?
I love the way that things rock a bit more than usual. That huge guitar riff on “Things That Go Bump in the Day” is all killer no filler, and “The Obscenity Prayer (Give It To Me)” is pretty tough with its big fat guitar lines and its fake-Aronoff drum momentum—but could you have balanced the song a little by making the narrator’s hateful solipsism a little less hamhanded? Because it sounds a little like you don’t trust your audience to understand satire, like you think you’d better make everything as Lowest Common Denominator as possible or else they’ll be like “Hey, this guy on this song sounds pretty awesome!” Hey, you’re preaching to the choir anyway, might as well go lightly with that spackle.
This is still a pretty good record, Mr. Crowell. I love the way you’ve rearranged Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” as a duet (with Emmylou Harris), giving it all a great narrative spin that even ol’ Bob didn’t bother in his original version. (And I actually love the line on “Beautiful Despair” about how you’re laying in bed at 3 a.m. realizing that you’ll never be as good a songwriter as Dylan—hell, that’s better than most Dylan lines!) And all the praise you’re getting for “Glasgow Girl” is warranted; it’s a clumsily lovely folk song about being a Texan in Scotland and being in love with a G.G. and searching for her. On the one hand, you didn’t have to drop quite so many place names, and there’s not really, again, much of a melody. (And can someone’s eyes really be “cobalt pearls”? Do they even exist?) But on the other hand, it’s so full of longing and cultural confusion and sadness and love that none of my little snarky criticisms matter. It’s undeniable.
So: I like this, but I have a hard time recommending it to others, unless they are more interested in righteous political discourse than in actual songcraft, and unless they are huge fans of unsubtle screeds. Hey, there’s a need for that too, especially in these insane times. But I think you need to get back to caring a bit more about hooks and memorable riffs if you want to expand your audience beyond the people who already know and love you.