Ever since 2001’s The Houston Kid, Rodney Crowell has been a man with a mission. His albums have shared the same blueprint: he belts out manifestoes about the state of American civilization and deftly whispers tender memories of personal experiences. He points his finger at the hip and powerful and tells them that they suck the blood out of our country with their pomposity and greed. He also admits his own personal failings and confesses that he learned his lessons the long and hard way.
Sometimes, Crowell’s just full of shit. His holier-than-thou litany of the good life comes across as just one more old man telling the young what they should do. Crowell proclaims he doesn’t eat sushi and loves biscuits and gravy as redneck credentials that makes him more of a real man, while he warns against today’s emphasis on superficial female beauty. Yeah, he’s like, complex, man.
On the other hand, Crowell’s willingness to lay it on line and not care if he comes across as a hypocrite or an jerk makes him an artist. His Dylan-like pretentiousness yields Dylan-like rage, prophecy, and poetry. If one considers the Great White Wonder’s “Like a Rolling Stone” the greatest single ever made — and it appears from the evidence on this disc that Crowell probably does — then this Houston boy’s output will make you squeal with glee. The spirit of ’60s Zimmerman runs all through this disc. There’s even a song called “I Want You #35”, whose title echoes two Dylan titles from that era: “I Want You” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”.
Crowell’s saving grace is his sense of humor. “I’m okay as long as I can laugh / I don’t care if everything goes wrong”, he sings on “The Night’s Just Right”, and Crowell proves he means this by the comic elements that fuel every track on this disc. Most of the time, the laughter is dark. What does one expect from someone who lives in this modern world where wars rage and the planet seems to go from disaster to disaster on a daily basis?
But he also understands the pleasures of love, and not just the spiritual kind. Crowell might rant about “Sex & Gasoline” on the title cut, but he’s got nothing against physical gratifications of the flesh. He’s just against the media’s modern obsession with youthful appearances, especially the feminine kind. Much of the album is specifically concerned with what it means to be a woman.
The most explicit example of this appears on “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design”, which begins, “If I could have just one wish / Maybe for an hour/ I’d want to be a woman / And feel that phantom power”. Crowell offers a list of concerns, from breaking hearts to the war in Baghdad, from a distaff perspective. This Texan takes on the Lone Star President for his failings and presumes that maybe a woman would do better, but presumably this is no promotion for Hillary. Crowell supported John Edwards for the Democratic Party nomination. This is just an imaginative exercise at looking at the world through fresh eyes and finding its failings.
Crowell isn’t breaking new ground here. The album’s biggest failing is that it sounds too much like his past three albums. But this also gives this record strength. Crowell has staked his claim to the moral high ground and offers his Jeremiad to all that will listen. His old fans will embrace this as further proof of Crowell’s talents and visions because of the songs’ musical elegance and lyrical grace. However, this disc will probably not garner Crowell many new followers.