McMurtry can be coy, but then shock with his bluntness. In fact, it is his willingness to take things a little too far verbally that gives the record its punch.
Sophisticated. That’s the first word that comes to mind when listening to Austin-based singer-songwriter Curtis McMurtry’s latest release, The Hornet’s Nest. He produced this record, and his musical arrangements frequently employ a muted trumpeted, cello, and an upright bass. The material is more jazz-tinged than rock oriented. His lyrics suggest an urbane culture where affairs of the heart are more of a parlor game than something more serious. His songs resemble the works of Cole Porter and Noël Coward more than contemporary stylists.
McMurtry can be coy but then shock with his bluntness. In fact, it is his willingness to take things a little too far verbally that gives the record its punch. The smooth surface belies the crude desires underneath the chic melodies. Lines such as “With your fingers in my hair / My mouth between your legs” (from “Can’t Be Better”) seem to come out of nowhere in a stylish love song that demurely refuses to name erotic body parts explicitly. The song’s carnality is almost ascetic.
Other songs may refer to bisexuality, marital infidelities, and illicit passions with sly grins and a diffident sensibility. McMurtry rarely raises his voice in passion or lowers it for intimacy. That comes through in his phrasing. Or as he puts it in the title of the satiric “Wrong Inflection”, a duet with Mother Falcon’s Diana Burgess, sometimes it is not what he says verbatim as much as where he puts the emphasis. The purposeful ambiguity thinly disguises the less than sincere motives of his narrators. McMurtry peoples his songs with characters who justify their bad behavior with self-serving excuses.
“Please don’t pretend you’d do better by me,” sings the homicidal narrator of “Bayonet” to his old love who has left him. It’s one thing for an unrequited love to create raw feelings described as being “cut to the bone”. It’s quite another to do the cutting. The song's tension comes from the blade’s edge. How far gone is the calmly rational crooner? The listener can’t be sure.
Most of the other songs are not as melodramatic, but maybe just as melancholy. Cuts such as “Tracker” suggest that life and sadness are basically the same things. For the sensitive soul, just living is an act of endurance. One must limp along, cling to another, and lie to make it to another day. Being with another usurps that person of independence, but there is no other choice. Or as he sings elsewhere, being together forever is a myth that justifies being “Together for Now”. The truth is that we all use others for our benefit and then rationalize our behavior.
McMurtry’s characters may be cynical. They may not empathize with others, but they also do not ask for our sympathy and understanding. Imagine a world where God is a wolf, not a shepherd. The human imperative in such a world is self-interest. McMurtry musically presents these people in all their slickness. He uses classy melodies and refined lyricism to hide how loathsome people can be, but McMurtry sees through their pretexts. He doesn’t pardon or apologize. His art bears witness to it all. Or if God is a wolf, what then is the Devil? His songs suggest one can find the answer in the mirror.