[11 June 2002]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The landscape of Texas seems filled with vast expanses of land and sky, with trains and grain, dust clouds and full moons. The musical voice of this landscape is The Flatlanders, who set their human stories about loneliness, love, friendship and betrayal against this backdrop, one they know well.
This part of Texas has been at the heart of everything the group’s members have done over the last few decades, and they’ve done a lot, though more often separate than together. The Flatlanders—Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock—formed in Lubbock, Texas, in 1971, yet only recorded one album, untitled and only on 8-track (now available from Rounder Records as More a Legend Than a Band), before going their separate ways. Each man went on to release his own bevy of fantastic albums over the years. All three represent the musical poetry of Texas, with a traditional country-folk sound, but each has his own style and personality. Gilmore is the gentle philosopher, Hancock the reclusive ballad singer, Ely the rougher-edged country-rocker.
It’s been 30 years since the Flatlanders made an album together, so their new album Now Again is quite a surprise, though one they’ve been hinting at over the last five years by releasing a couple of collaborations and making a few concert appearances together. Most reunion albums are better events than albums, since the musicians aren’t in the same place, creatively or personally, as they were when they disbanded. This is the exception. There is a seamless chemistry to their collaboration, one likely caused not just by the fact that the three have remained friends over the years, but because they’ve essentially never stopped collaborating, as each member has been continually singing the others’ songs (in particular, there’s next to no Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Joe Ely album that doesn’t include at least one song written by Hancock). This has kept the three connected in terms of artistic spirit, even while each has taken his own career path. Now Again is also a true collaboration, with 12 of the 14 songs written by all three together (the exceptions are one Hancock song, “Julia”, and a cover of Utah Phillips’ “Going Away”).
The sound of Now Again is traditional country music stripped down to the elements, with mostly vocals and guitars but also instruments like dobro, saw, accordion, harmonica and fiddle. At the album’s heart are the three men’s voices. Each song has one sort-of lead singer but mostly features all three singing together. Add in four other men who sing back-up here and there, and you have an album where a main musical theme is men singing beautiful C&W in harmony together. One especially heart-stopping moment comes partway through the fourth track, “Down in the Light of the Melon Moon”. Hancock sings the first verse; after he gets through the words “as a falling star fell”, there’s a second or two of silence before the other men come in singing in one gorgeous voice, “The moon sees you, the moon sees me”.
Not counting a too-goofy jaunt called “Pay the Alligator”, Now Again‘s songwriting is as superb as anything the three men have done separately, with sharp melodies and even sharper lyrics. The songs are, generally speaking, love songs that set a detailed scene and have a certain philosophical bent to them, an ease at suggesting that more exists than what’s there. Using subtle riddles and smart queries, they offer a more complicated vision of the world than you might expect. Take this revelation of terror that Gilmore casually sings in the upbeat shuffle “My Wildest Dreams Grow Wilder Every Day”: “My daydreams and my nightmares are so real there’s no mistake / It wouldn’t be so bad if I was not so wide awake”. Or listen to “Yesterday Was Judgement Day”, a complex probing into questions of eternity.
Now Again takes on big questions of what’s really going on beyond life’s surface, yet does so in an extremely relaxed, gentle way. These questions are well-suited to a landscape as large and mysterious as the one captured in the album’s artwork, a series of photos (taken by Hancock, Ely and Ely’s wife Sharon) showing empty factories and cars, barbed-wire fences, expanses of clouds and, in the cover shot, a harsh lightning bolt striking directly on top of a rainbow, above a ghostly farmland home to a solitary piece of machinery. These mystical questions also fit the timelessness of The Flatlanders’ voices when they sing together. And as the final track, “South Wind of Summer”, picks up speed halfway through and the men sing together powerfully until the song fades away, leaving them still singing, you can almost picture them standing up on a ridge somewhere, singing on into infinity.