[7 January 2010]
When everyman minstrel Langhorne Slim opens his third album of folk-pop, Be Set Free,, with a line about a morbid identity crisis, it’s more of a misleading lyrical gesture than a statement of mid-career crisis. “I don’t wanna die, but I don’t yet know where I belong”, Slim sings on “Back to the Wild”, the shimmering opener to an album that actually finds Slim right where he belongs: crooning, yelping, and shouting his way through infectiously catchy folk-romps. If there’s an identity crisis going on here, it sure doesn’t show in the music, which features some of Slim’s most self-assured compositions to date.
From finger-picked folk anthems to honky-tonk bar rockers to toe-tapping pop songs to nostalgic piano ballads sprinkled with oldies station pixie dust, the freewheeling Slim paints his identity as a friendly neighborhood vagabond all over every genre that takes his fancy. As a result, Be Set Free is a triumphant, sprawling affair likely to please a wide variety of demographics: neo-folkies, Dylan-heads, parents that still listen to their Jackson Browne records, and even pop fans that like their sing-along choruses to come with a side of serious songwriting craftsmanship. Slim’s voice, which ranges from the gravelly-crack of Bob Dylan to the emotive, pinched-nose delivery of Neil Young, ties the whole package together in a neat, pretty bow.
Embellishing his standard sing-along fare with backing gospel choruses, rich string arrangements, and tasteful piano tinkling, Slim couldn’t sound more confident on a soapbox—which wouldn’t be such a bad place for him, if only he had something to say. Instead, on most of Be Set Free Slim comes off like the prematurely wise older brother that just wants to wrap an arm around your shoulder and make the bad things disappear. It doesn’t matter how confidingly Slim sings “Time will tell, what will be will be” on “Sunday by the Sea”, it still comes off like the meaningless advice of an aging stoner. Fortunately, Slim sets the bar high enough with his melodies to redeem the lyrics he himself admits to not trusting. “Whether I’m right, whether I’m wrong / Time it goes by, life it goes on”, Slim admits on the title track, knowing that the horn stabs, slide guitar line, and organ squeal more than speak for themselves.
Occasionally though, when Slim is on surer thematic ground, the payoff is worth every lackluster lyrical cliché. Album highlights “Back to the Wild” and “Leaving My Love” both blend Slim’s impeccable ear for pretty, earthy melodies with an unflinchingly honest take on life and love. Rather than encourage passive acceptance of either, Slim revels in the brief, but revealing moments when he’s in danger of losing his grasp on them both. That being said, nothing on Be Set Free is going to liberate Slim’s audience from any of the preconceptions they have already have about life, love, or even folk music. Rather, Be Set Free is the musical equivalent of a green bean casserole. It’s not going be anyone’s favorite dish at the table, but everyone, young and old, will want a second helping.