Lambchop’s new album This (is what I wanted to tell you) is a grave lounge album. Continuing in the electronic direction of 2016’s FLOTUS, This… features Kurt Wagner and his assembled musicians (including co-songwriter Matthew McCaughan) pushing deeper into the sonic experimentation Wagner introduced on that stylistic departure of an album. Wagner made FLOTUS in the midst of a new fixation on vocal multi-effects processors. That excursion gave new life to the singer’s already distinctive voice, formerly of a large band previously categorized within the amorphous “alternative country” musical subgenre. In truth, Lambchop’s sound and lineup have never been stable, always evolving toward what’s next, with some breakthroughs being more successful than others.
FLOTUS was anchored by three singles, “In Care of 8675309”, “NIV”, and the incredible 18-minute epic “The Hustle”. Yet the album as a whole sounded uncertain, searching, more like a practice than a final product. Some of the vocal recording and mixing choices worked against the songs, with the worst offenders featuring mouth-sounds that could trigger misophonia. This… bears no such creative aimlessness or ill-advised production. Jeremy Ferguson returns as producer/engineer, and the songs by Wagner and McCaughan are unified and consistent. The narrower path of This… further reveals FLOTUS as a transitional album.
This… is not easily classifiable. Almost exactly two years since Sun Araw released his own warped Western album The Saddle of the Increate, This… is Wagner’s most successful attempt yet to drag a country past into a turbulent brand of modernism. The subjects of the songs are explicitly other-directed. Each song save the final track features the word “you” in its title, as if inverting the self-focused first half of Magnetic Fields’ 2004 album i. Yet relationships are perhaps only the container for the truly evocative lyrical content, which consists of a series of sense memories.
Smells, lights, and air permeate the album, exhibiting particular qualities before passing into other states of being. Wagner’s heavily altered voice narrates this procession of senses. On the journey from opening song “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” to final song “Flower”, he directs the listener’s attention to aging in contrast to youth, to dying in contrast to living. Wagner and McCaughan juxtapose these human, natural senses with vocal processing, beats and synthesizers, which is a bit of a risk. At some points, the album sounds like a conjecture, like how pop music might sound had Primitive Radio Gods birthed a genre rather than a single hit. What keeps This… stimulating are the instrumental contributions of Matt Swanson on bass guitar, Charlie McCoy on harmonica, and a handful of other well-chosen counter-points to the synthetic brew.
There are some familiar production choices as well, which might be evidence of the records McCaughan has studied in the past couple of decades and/or signs that he has good instincts for how to balance electronic and acoustic elements. Toward the end of the gorgeous and deeply sad “Crosswords, or what this says about you”, an impossibly low voice asks from the right speaker, “How do you remember?” The moment provides an effective emotional jolt, but it’s also very close to a technique the Flaming Lips used on “All We Have Is Now” in 2002. Also, “The December-ish you” unfolds like Primal Scream’s “Keep Your Dreams” from 2000.
Throughout This… is the heavy mood of realizing what’s important as it is passing by or passing on. This mood reaches its peak (or depth, depending on the perceived quality of the feeling) on “This is what I wanted to tell you”, whose atmosphere calls forth the spectral brass of Club Silencio and Bohren’s Piano Nights. Then the falling action is “Flower”, whose classical production style is the light, or the clarity, at the end of the album’s dark and fevered night. Wagner sings, “Give me back my Christian name” as a harmonica cries out. There’s a seeming serendipity to veteran Wagner investing so much in that very phrase less than a year after William Matheny’s memorable countryish single “Christian Name”.
Still, “Flower” is right on point, confirmation that Wagner and McCaughan have been connecting the dots from classic Lambchop to this moment all along. This… is the musical equivalent of that final “walk” monologue from Synecdoche, New York. It’s a heavy listen, but potentially a rapturous one as well, for anyone who has ever experienced a reverie of aging and all it entails. “Now you are here … Now you are gone.”