Lambchop’s latest, their ninth, studio album emerges from one of the darkest periods in their enigmatic career. In the time since their last sprawling double album Aw C’mon / No You C’mon frontman and bandleader Kurt Wagner endured a cancer scare and underwent major surgery to have bone from his hip grafted to his jaw which was being eaten away by a cyst. Dark times indeed, though out of such times the whispers that precede the release of Damaged have spoken of a record that was to be Lambchop’s masterpiece. It would certainly be some claim to speculate that any record could usurp 2000’s boldly soulful Nixon, or match the quiet emotional storm of its follow up Is a Woman, but after a couple of spins of Damaged it’s a whisper that is not too far of the mark. As the album’s title and Wagner’s recent woes would suggest, this is a record cloaked in the themes of fragile mortality and gently brooding sorrow. Yet despite this, Damaged has, if not a joy, then a noble resilience about it — a defiant, crooked smile laced with a sense of the absurd and sprinkled with pitch-black humour. Indeed as these songs gradually reveal themselves it is clear that this is Lambchop’s, and Wagner’s most nakedly human release to date.
The album opens with “Paperback Bible”, a song Wagner wrote entirely using snippets of conversations from a radio swap shop programme, where ordinary people barter and exchange their unwanted goods. The song unfurls from it’s cut and paste beginnings of murmuring electronica into a slideshow of images of “rat terrier pup’s”, “worn just once” dresses and handguns that “were made for shooting people”. These pictures are set against a curtain of lightly shimmering guitar and elegant, sighing strings, and it’s clear Wagner’s carefully constructed words are no piss-take. Instead the mundane procession of household items and memories are loaded with pathos, an impossible rough-hewn beauty and eccentric humanity. In short it’s the type of song that you couldn’t imagine any other band doing — it at once engulfs the listener and marks out the territory of this extraordinary album.
Most of the songs that follow, slide by in a sort of haze of half remembered phrases and blurred snapshots that only reveal their clarity over several listens. “Prepared (2)” is a devastating lament on the fragility of love and fidelity, and is unequivocally one of the best things Lambchop have ever done. Wagner half croons in his unmistakable cracked baritone, “Voices cried in silence or crept stealthily away/ Left shimmering with rigid lips compressed”, as his home life seems to be gently collapsing around him to the sound of jazz-inflected piano and a devastating falling melody. Quite how personal some of these songs are to Wagner we’ll probably never know, but they come with such emotional resonance and clarity that their effect is deeply felt. “Short” might open with the claim that it’s just “a little story about regret”, but Wagner proceeds to throw together in the song, the pieces of a splintered relationship, ravaged by mistrust and infidelity, with not a wasted or unnecessary word or note. He sings “And our life hangs on a string/ And today we start to learn just what that means/ And somehow we’re faced with the fact/ That you won’t ever get this back”, and it’s one of the most incredible heart-rending love songs this listener has ever heard.
Wagner has always chronicled the failings of his fellow man with an uncompromising attention to grimy detail, and here assumes to role of a bored housewife on the gorgeous country-soul centrepiece “I Would Have Waited Here All Day”. Wagner’s character notes the dirty dishes in the sink, watches her man drying off his dick, before admitting with a weary resignation that “My favourite hour of any day/ Is the one before you get home/ A fading sense of anticipation/ Is something I’ve come to know”. The song paints a helpless picture of domestic solitude, stagnation and commitment that’s as tragic as the soulful groove of the tune is jaw-to-the-floor beautiful. Originally written for Candi Staton, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else but Wagner wringing such desperate emotion from this story of a woman, denied a life of her own by her heartbreaking attachment to her man.
What Damaged does confirm is just how far away from their often-imagined existence as some sort of alt-country soul band Lambchop are. Though that pigeon-hole was never anywhere near wide enough to hold the restless Nashville collective in place, the subtle and delicately organic electronic touches that colour the spaces throughout this record and the frequently surprising and astounding musical left turns the album takes are a long way from Gram Parsons or Ryan Adams. As ever, despite their ever-moving sound, Lambchop sound only like Lambchop. It would take many words to document the instinctive, creative and unselfish musicality that these songs exude, but just to listen to the haunting guitar and lap-steel interplay that underpins “The Rise and Fall of the Letter P” or the sudden burst of motown horns that closes “Beers Before the Barbican”, is to hear a band totally unique and wonderfully alive.
Damaged then, is the sound of band, and a songwriter, seemingly reaching where they have been headed all this time. And though the recent confrontations with mortality have clearly lent weight to the songs here, Wagner is far too skilful a writer to ever let them descend in to songs of wallowing self-confession. Indeed the poetry that unfolds through these ten astonishing songs is touched with hushed secrecy, tender humour and an instinctive insight into our fragile human conditions. Lambchop have long been one of America’s greatest bands, and Damaged is their greatest achievement.