[14 September 2003]
What began for Billy Bob Thornton as a loving exercise in alternative country has descended into twangy rock and roll gestures mixed with the occasional display of horny affection from a suitor who has lost that loving feeling. The Edge of the World is Thornton’s second musical effort following Private Radio and with The Edge, Thornton has joined his Bandits co-star Bruce Willis in an unabashed love of clichés. Unfortunately, Thornton needs to cut loose and shamelessly enjoy himself as much as the Moonlighting wannabe soul man.
Song after song traffics in such straightforward rhythms this easily could have sprung from the garage studio of any lonely, self-taught diehard with a Radio Shack charge card and a copy of Happy Traum’s The Guitarist’s Picture Chords. And, on top of that, The End of the World lacks compelling stories, which most would imagine a character actor of Thornton’s caliber would be able to access instinctively. There’s no way to convince anyone that all of the hard work and creativity went into crafting song titles like “Everybody Lies”, “The Desperate One”, and “Pieces of a Man”. After creating such finely detailed voices in the Oscar winning screenplay for Sling Blade, Thornton would seem to be a natural downtrodden troubadour alongside David Baerwald or Robbie Robertson who transform the seedy Los Angeles underbelly and the Native American dreamscapes, respectively, into feverish, desperate lands.
Despite his relaxed, laconic delivery, most of the lyrics feel far less natural in his half-sung/half-spoken style than in his truly memorable onscreen performances. The uninspired lyrics—- which show the strain of Thornton’s efforts to have each line end in rhyme and emerge enclosed in quotation marks that fail to make them more distinct—- rarely seem to belong to this particular character he’s created on disc.
This is not to say there are brief glimpses into the musical heart beating in Thornton’s chest. The starkly delicate beauty of the guitar intro on “God” is a message exhumed from a bluesy Southern time capsule or a lost soundtrack to a forgotten David Lynch project. Sadly, the track suffers from Thornton’s tedious spoken word address to God or more likely one of his lovers/wives.
The inspired humor of “Do God Wop”, which appropriates the surreal tone and musicality of Frank Zappa, is the only track that seems to contain even a hint of Thornton’s deadpan spirit. It begins with a swirling instrumental duel of trippy guitars, organ trills, and jazzy Ginger Baker-ish drumming before stopping on a dime and nodding off into another talk with God backed by a demented bunch of doo-wopers. There isn’t an ounce of reverence in this dialogue with the Man upstairs and there’s a sense that He and Thornton are a couple of geeky teenage losers affectionately teasing each other.
More such blasphemous fun might have really resulted in a journey closer to the edge or at least the outer extremities of the mind of Billy Bob Thornton. It would have been nice if by the end of the disc, I felt like I knew something more about the man than the tabloid headlines of his life and that he can afford to release a collection of neat and clean demos. Next time, maybe he’ll give us a glimpse into his dirty little world.