Rodney Crowell: Close Ties

Photo: Joseph Llanes

On Close Ties, Crowell sees his own failures and acknowledges that he may not have changed as much as he should have.

Rodney Crowell

Close Ties

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2017-03-31
UK Release Date: 2017-03-31

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.