Photo: Shane McCauley

James McMurtry: Complicated Game

Enmeshing heartfelt stories into a roots sound, McMurtry crafts an Americana classic.
James McMurtry
Complicated Game
Complicated Game

In “Ain’t Got a Place”, a song from his new album Complicated Game, James McMurtry sings “The skies are taller in Louisiana / The skies are wider in New Mexico / The skies in Texas kinda split the difference / It don’t suit me, no matter where I go / I ain’t got a place in this world”. In a simple arrangement of banjo, acoustic guitar, and drums, the speaker wittily suggests how the world’s oddities can be confronted with small amusement: “I’m looking out for all my interests / Looking in just brings me down”.

Characteristic of songs throughout this album, the first-person speaker feels more like a created persona than a stand-in for the songwriter. Though the refrain here is, “I ain’t got a place in this world”, McMurtry is anchored deeply to his adopted home of Austin, Texas, where he plays every week at the Continental Club Gallery. But despite his roots there, McMurtry’s song characters aren’t Austin old-timers who created the co-ops, or worked for SDS, or gave the city its oddball ’60s feel, nor are they the new Austinites who work in downtown high rises and we’d call Yuppies if this were 1986. McMurtry lives in Austin and is part of the city’s great musical tradition, but his characters live across the southern plains, into the pine forests of eastern Texas and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, up to South Dakota and finally over to the East Coast and Long Island. Their roots are more tumbleweed and less live oak; their prospects are sometimes dim and sometimes dismal; but for all characters, a mix of the sardonic and hopeful is helping them just get by.

The album has numerous love songs: “Copper Canteen”, “You Got to Me”, “How’m I Gonna Find You Now”, “These Things I’ve Come to Know”, among others. These love songs are less in the pop vein — songs about exciting love found or aching love lost — than love songs that reflect a middle-aged outlook where the characters do love, though in part out of habit. McMurtry’s genius with these songs is to create in five minutes complex vignettes and memorable refrains that open up a world where we don’t get much, but it’s enough, where life might be hard but we can deal with it. McMurtry’s genius also lies in the understated, surprising wit that he gives his characters as a reflection of their own self-understanding. Though a relationship may be tenuous and provides only part of life’s meaning, love matters, nevertheless. “She Loves Me”, for example, is a song about what is possible in a world where people are on the go, living away from one another, sometimes unfaithful, and so forth. The line, “I don’t know if I can hang in such a complicated game” provides the album’s title, but listening intently, we think the speaker probably will. McMurtry’s characters show that men and women disillusioned with the pop version of love and annoyed at times with one another can yet be connected.

The sheer brilliance of McMurtry’s political songs such as “We Can’t Make It Here” (chosen by the eminent critic Robert Christgau as the best song of the 2000s) and “Cheney’s Toy” nearly pigeonholed him as a protest singer. But over his long career McMurtry has been primarily a storyteller on the small scale, where the politics lies implicitly in the particular situations that socially construct the characters’ lives. So in this album, his first in more than six years.

“The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” McMurtry says. “It’s also a little about the big old world versus the poor little farmer or fisherman.” Some of the strongest songs such as “Carlisle’s Haul” and “Long Island Sound” tell the stories of people whose lives are not quite working out in the ways that they had hoped. Some lives here are very bleak, as in “Cutter” whose narrator’s tiredness and fear lead to self-mutilation, emblematic of a life just barely worth living; or in “South Dakota”, where a discharged vet returns to his home and buys cattle to resume ranching, only to have them die in a blizzard. “I won’t get nothing here but broke and older”, he sings, “I might as well re-up again”.

Throughout his career, McMurtry has shown that he’s happy to plug in everyone in his band and play some fast and loud rock, and we see that in Complicated Game with the song released as the first single. “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” is a blues-structured, rap-influenced, alt-country meets roots melds into straight-up rock song. But the sonics of the rest of the songs are acoustic, folky even, where two guitars or a banjo and guitar call and respond, or one guitar does a simple picking pattern. The arrangements of the songs serve primarily to highlight the stories being told. The spare arrangements also highlight McMurtry’s soulful singing.

McMurtry has become a mainstay at the Americana Music Association’s awards show with Childish Things (2005) winning best Americana album and Just Us Kids (2008) being nominated. The new album doesn’t have the political commentary that we saw on those two, but it’s likely we’re going to see Complicated Game on the nominee list come next year. It’s that good.

RATING 8 / 10