Though it has shorter songs and a distinctly happier mood, Ready for Confetti is pure Keen and will satisfy fans of the eminent lyricist.
Robert Earl Keen is a one of the quintessential voices of central Texas. Not as a singer -- though his delivery has some magic to it -- but as a songwriter and a storyteller. He's what a country artist should be and nothing it's not: clever, but not contrived; wise, but not intellectual; tough, but not macho; and, above all, honest.
His lyrics are cerebral -- that will never change, but his tone will. On Ready for Confetti, Keen's 16th release, he opts for a happy-go-lucky mood on most songs. It's a smokescreen, though. Once the lyrics sink in, we realize he's setting the same scenes he always has: southwestern stories that act out the indefinable humors, tragedies and ironies of life. Take the title track as an example. It's not the cheery birthday party anthem it sounds like on first listen, nor is it descriptions of eccentric strangers it sounds like on the second listen. It embodies homelessness and schizophrenia told by a homeless man.
The musicianship on Ready for Confetti is professional and slick, which is basically status-quo for a big-league country album. Keen is a solid guitar picker in his own right and can drive a song on his own, but he's got a longtime band of crack-players who utilize everything from Hammond B3 organs to congas to keep things from getting dusty. Rich Brotherton's nylon stringed solo on "Black Baldi Stallion" is paralyzingly great and the knee-slapping percussion on "I Gotta Go" is notable. But instrumental experimentation and expertise has never been the heart of Robert Earl Keen's music -- songwriting is.
"I Gotta Go" is a three-minute masterpiece. Driven by a corkscrew guitar lick, Keen tells the story of a man's rough life, from start to finish, in just a few short scenes always ending in someone uttering the impassive title-line. In contrast to that song's razor wit, "Waves of the Ocean" is a sensitive goodbye, sung over an island-tinged country backing, with a mandolin playing chop-chords over a deep reggae bass line. Both are great and will stand out even in Keen's immense back-catalog, though the best song on Ready for Confetti is the "Road Goes On and On", a scathing commentary on phoniness:
"You're a regular jack in the box in your clown suit and your goldi-locks / The original liar's paradox, you'll have to Google that / How in the hell do you think you'll make it when the real test comes and you just can't fake it? / Your sycophants say they just can't take it and leave you lying flat".
Keen sounds great when he's mad and, in a perfect world, that song would be a country radio hit. Alas, mainstream listeners won't like being called sycophants and certainly won't recall the liar's paradox so the track will instead be relegated to be a great deep cut in Keen's discography.
Ready for Confetti also has its missteps, most notably the bargain-bin honky-tonk of "Who Do Man", which sounds like a sick amalgamation of a Jerry Lee Louis impression and an old Brooks and Dunn single. The silly, punchline lyrics and confounding hook could work if they were delivered with the simple charm of someone like Roger Miller, but it comes off as ready-made and impersonal, which may not be noticeable if it weren't so far below Keen's capabilities.
There are three cover songs on Ready For Confetti. The first is "Play a Train Song" by Todd Snider -- an upbeat epitaph for a drinking buddy. Another is the traditional gospel tune, "Where the Soul of a Man Never Dies", which Keen utilizes as a tranquil closing track. On the third, he covers himself. In his tantamount redux of "Paint the Town Beige" (the original appearing on his 1993 album A Bigger Piece of Sky), Keen relates the experience of settling one's recklessness for a simple, pedestrian existence. Keen says he rerecorded the song because he didn't like the original production, but it's easy to imagine that, as he's getting on in years, he now sees a little personal relevance in the track.
Though the songs are shorter and the tone is sweeter, Ready for Confetti doesn't sound all that different from Keen's last release, 2009's Rose Hotel and in terms of his discography, it is neither disappointing, nor exceptional. It is, in the least, sustenance for his fans who want new songs and refuse to believe that Keen's best years are behind him.