Sometimes Kurt Wagner is singing truly profound things, sometimes he seems to be reading instructions off of packaging, and often it’s hard to tell the difference.
The swelling and subduing strings, piano notes and brushed drums of the start to “If Not I’ll Just Die”, the first song on Lambchop’s latest album, really does sound like the setup for a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald ballad. After the drums there’s that standard pause before the voice comes in, and instead of some slick crooner’s voice it’s Kurt Wagner’s more craggy one. He starts, “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about / maybe blowing kisses … and really what difference does it make?” It’s subversively non-committal and annoyed-sounding for a ballad. His singing does have the power of a stirring jazz or soul ballad once you’ve tuned into his wavelength and fallen under his spell. He has a unique way of phrasing things, for one; a trait of many a great singer. Aided by the slow pace of Lambchop’s music, his singing often seems like nonchalance, but when you’re attuned to it, it’s more impassioned than you expect. On this first song, he sings about listening to instruments (“here come them crazy flutes”) and about making coffee, along with some proclamations like “we were born to rule”, while ambient noise blends in with the strings. It strikes me as a song about listening to music while you’re doing other regular-life stuff, which is pretty much my existence.
Lambchop’s music is an acquired taste, by which I don't mean that it’s too complex for the masses but that it walks slightly out of step with most music, carrying enough ‘amateur’ and digressive qualities to drive away those used to quicker, easier pleasures. I’ve gone through years where I was repelled by Lambchop followed by years where their music sounded like the most brilliant thing. Right now I’m in one of the latter, which means Mr. M is hitting me at exactly the right moment, because if the group’s music can be comforting, moving, pretty and mystifying at once – this time it’s especially so.
Merge has been marketing Lambchop off the quote that they’re “Nashville’s most f**ked up country band”, but here, on their 11th LP, their music feels much wider in scope than any definition of country, though the heavy use of strings does bring to mind many country hits of the past (pop ones, too). (Also, the music’s f**ked-up-ness is quite subtle; your average person on the street will be bored before they’re offended.) Though Sinatra’s favoring of strings makes him keep coming to mind, there are also moments that sound like Leonard Cohen (the end of “2B2”), parts that recall ‘70s country/folk singer-songwriters like Glen Campbell (the first half of “Gone Tomorrow”), some instrumentals themes straight out of the movies, and touches of soul, of dreamy ambient music, of bossa nova and more.
Mr. M is in-your-head music. You mostly feel like you’re inside the head of the singer or his characters, hearing someone’s observations of the world; their stories; their opinions; their random thoughts. There are expressions of resignation and disappointment, platitudes that tend towards a complicated view of the world, and descriptions of the mundane that feed the notion that Kurt Wagner is writing poetry of everyday life. Sometimes he’s singing truly profound things, sometimes he seems to be reading instructions off of packaging, and often it’s hard to tell the difference. He’ll start a song with, “took the Christmas lights / off the front porch / February 31st”, and it sounds like a telling anecdote. Or maybe it’s not, maybe it just means what it says.
Unexpected images flow. He’ll say “the wine tasted like sunshine in the basement”, and the comparison sticks with you. There are lines that sound like clichés but then again aren’t at all. They hover somewhere close to clichés, in that way recalling the history of popular music, but are, again, surprising, like this: “and the sky opens up like candy / and the wind don’t know my name”.
There is a lot of sadness on the album. At their core these are songs of isolation, desperation and the distance between people. Also of loss. In the press the album has been talked about as a reaction to the death of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who was Wagner’s friend (Lambchop also collaborated with Chesnutt on his 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette) and, to many of us, one of the greats of our time. Though I read somewhere that “Gone Tomorrow” tells a story from a tour they did together, I don’t hear many overt references on the album to Chesnutt, at least not overt enough for most listeners to notice. I do, however, feel the presence of his loss, on “Mr. Met”, for example, where Wagner could be singing about a friend’s suicide. “You made me swear, like used software, I will not follow you”, he sings, both touchingly and distinctively. If Vic Chesnutt isn’t hovering around that song, I hear him anyway. Then again, I hear him everywhere I turn these days. I hear Vic Chesnutt’s absence in music period these days, whether it has any relation to him or not. He’s forever here .