Rodney Crowell’s latest release, Close Ties, is a boisterously serious and audacious attempt to come to terms with his personal past, semi-comfortable present, and uncertain future as an aging artist whose time in the spotlight has left him burnt but not burned out. He wrangles with clearly autobiographical tropes in the first person, ones that seem to be true but are clearly more mythic than accurate, and even others that are obviously false narratives about someone else but with whom he can identify. The Houston kid is now a senior citizen, and (as he puts it), after life knocks one down it doesn’t matter whether you get up or stay stretched out on the mat; there is always more left to go before death.
Crowell’s ten-song opus begins in Space City, with a modern day version of a guy like himself as a young punk. However, this guy drinks and drives, steals to get cash, carries a gun, and can’t catch a break. On a scale of one to ten, the “East Houston Blues” are “about nine and a half”. Crowell keeps the song from falling into cliché with his eye for detail (i.e., “Sipping Easy Times straight from a paper bag”) and the insistent rhythm that sympathetically captures the recklessness of the protagonist. Poverty and its related consequences have helped make the man his own worst enemy. He can’t find peace in this broken-down world. He wrangles with his demons rather than wrestles with them. Oh, if he could only find a good woman.
This theme of romantic-love-as-salvation runs throughout the disc. He delves into past relationships directly on several cuts (e.g., “Life Without Susanna” and “I’m Sorry Annabelle”), but it finds its most eloquent expression on the confessional “It Ain’t Over Yet”. Crowell sings with his ex-wife, Rosanne Cash, and ex-Civil Wars vet, John Paul White, about past behaviors and doubts. Crowell and Cash openly exchange confidences because, despite all of the hardships, they both found love (albeit elsewhere). There’s something humbling about the song’s intimacy in the way the two address each other so directly and with affection after experiencing such pain.
So when Crowell sings "I Don’t Care Anymore”, you know he does; it’s just that he no longer cares about material success. On this and the other tracks, the narrator philosophizes about what really has value. He doesn’t provide the answer, but his literate lyrics suggest the power of self-examination. Crowell looks at who he was and is with a cold eye. He sees his own failures and acknowledges that he may not have changed as much as he should have. Life’s lessons have been tough, but that doesn’t mean he has learned from them.
Crowell’s writes with a poet’s ear for diction and meaning. There’s rarely an unnecessary word, and each phrase reverberates on more than one level. This goes beyond craftsmanship into artistry. Providing an example isn’t appropriate because it depends on how the words fit together into the whole of the song. While lines such as “Sitting on a bus stop / waiting for a train”, “They fought like dogs in Spanish / and made love in Russian”, and “Slay me with your tender mercy / and comfort me with words of steel” may suggest cleverness, but there is so much more going on. They provide just part of the picture.
He’s also a master storyteller. While the album begins in the present, it ends with the nostalgic “Nashville 1972”, in which Crowell looks back to the lean years when he began his career and moved to the Music City. He sings of Guy and Susanna Clark, David Olney, Mickey Newbury, Tom T. Hall, and others from the past with affection. He also notes his rawness. Take the stanza about when Crowell was first introduced to the Red Headed Stranger:
I first met Willie Nelson with some friends at a party
I was 22 years old, and he must have been pushing 40
Now there was hippies and reefer, and God knows what all I was drinking pretty hard
I played him this shitty song I wrote then puked out in the yard
The simple prose and mundane details conceal the artistry like the way Ashcan School painters depicted the soiled scenes of daily life to reveal radical truths. The mix of short and overlong sentences suggest how nervous Crowell was, which is reinforced by his plain, uncouth language that shows how bad his song might have been. The tale could not have been told more succinctly or movingly.
The excellence of Close Ties lies in Crowell’s ability to tell stories about himself and others that ring fresh and true. After more than 50 years as a recording artist, he’s still able to create evocative songs that linger in one’s head long after the disc has finished playing.