In the wake of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges proves that his musical skill is for real, even if for the most part he's treading familiar ground.
Any celebrity with a modicum of musical talent could easily make a record, hinging its success largely on his persona instead of actual musical ability. The hardcore fans of such a celebrity, for the most part, would likely buy the album regardless of their knowledge of his musical talent. Given that many modern actors have many talents (one notable example being James Franco, who, while maintaining an acting career, recently released a collection of short fiction while working toward his doctorate in English), it's not surprising to see them branch out into the musical arts. Unfortunately, not all meet with success; Scarlett Johansson's musical career still hasn't taken off, for instance, despite her many successes in film. Star power aside, people listen to music expecting good music, not just their favorite actor jamming in the studio.
This is where Jeff Bridges's first success lies: the album's best moments aren't contingent on Jeff Bridges being Jeff Bridges. As he had already shown in his Oscar-winning turn as a worn country singer in 2009's Crazy Heart, he's quite a good musician and songwriter (his country drawl is at times akin to John Hiatt). "The Weary Kind", the Oscar-winning song from that movie, is the obvious precursor to this record: T-Bone Burnett, who won the Oscar for co-writing the song with Ryan Bingham, worked again with Bridges on this record as producer and co-writer, and much of the music is in the same vein. Like the music of Crazy Heart, much of the album is dominated by mid-to-low tempo country music, and it more or less extends Bridges's excellent performance into a full-length album. This doesn't sound like The Dude recorded a country album; it sounds like Jeff Bridges, the musician, made a country album, though often the voice of Crazy Heart's Bad Blake is still here as well.
The album basically picks up where Crazy Heart left off in terms of tone and tempo. The most raucous the album gets is either on the opening track, "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do" (which sounds similar to some of Warren Zevon's forays into country and folk, though with Bridges's kindness in lieu of Zevon's cynicism), or "Blue Car", a cover of country singer Greg Brown. The latter is one of the album's best tracks. Bridges takes the original song, which had a more pastoral feel, and turns it into a cool twelve-bar blues, adding more and more instruments with each verse. Still, neither are terribly uptempo, and as the album comes to a conclusion, it seems that Bridges would have done well to pick up the pace on occasion. "The Weary Kind" showed Bridges's skill with the introspective, but when the majority of the record is dominated by slow and often morose ballads, the album drags on, especially given that many of the album's reflective pieces sound perhaps too close to the material from Crazy Heart. In particular, the especially bluesy "Slow Boat", the album's longest track, ambles on pointlessly for its six-minute run time. Where this is more successful is on the Bridges-penned "Tumbling Vine", a jazzy dirge that features Bridges's best vocal performance on the record. His deep, throaty voice blends quite well with the smoky jazz, accented with upright bass and nylon string guitar. It's a refreshing moment, one that showcases Bridges's talent as a songwriter and deviates from the formula present on much of the album.
"Am I falling short / Or do I fly?" Bridges asks on "Falling Short"; "While I miss the mark / Do I hit the sky?" Given that portions of the album feel like unused material from Crazy Heart, at times the album feels too much like a companion piece to the film as opposed to a true solo record. Admittedly, Bridges himself did note that some of the album's music was written during his work on Crazy Heart. Still, given the music here that sounds removed from the film (such as "Tumbling Vine"), it seems that Bridges could have used more of the album to explore that material as opposed to riffing on the music of Crazy Heart. Bridges is indeed a fine musician, and it would be great to hear more of his individual voice. It's paradoxical, in a way; while the album's successes don't hinge on Bridges's actor persona, much of the album's music is closely bound with one of his performances. The performance was a fine one, but Bridges's music is good enough that his recording career need not be lived vicariously.
So in some ways, Bridges is falling short, but it fortunately has nothing to do with a lack of talent. On that note, Bridges succeeds quite well. What he needs to do is clear: More Jeff Bridges, less Bad Blake.