Tom Russell has always, first and foremost, been a writer. I even hesitate to say songwriter.
Critically acclaimed for years over about a dozen releases, some have gone as far as to label Russell “the greatest living country songwriter”. That’s a bold statement, rare air to be hanging in, and a lot of promise to fulfill. And quite frankly, Russell — for all his talents — often teases but seldom delivers. His newest release, the odd in title and ambition, Modern Art, is no different.
A concept record at heart, Modern Art is a collection of newly penned and previously written songs described by the label as “modern roots classics.” Russell has been quoted as imagining the record as a tribute to some of the world’s great modern artists. Yet, there’s really nothing modern about this record at all. Of course, that’s always been the dilemma with Russell, a man who has made a living on his considerable potential but with only a handful of songs equal to the hype.
While some artists are constantly reinventing themselves and their sound (see one-time fellow genre mates Wilco), Russell is a static artist. His delivery, poetics and subject matter seldom change, and when they do it’s only by a matter of degrees. And while that may be comforting for longtime fans, it does little to interest anyone outside of that narrow audience.
Let’s start with the most obvious evidence: this is not Russell’s first concept album. In 1999, he released The Man From God Knows Where, a sort of immigrant song cycle that may or may not have been based on Russell’s own roots. Like most of Russell’s catalogue, The Man was primarily a songwriter’s record — sharp and observant lyrics with a knack for the turn of phrase. But the balance between melody and story has always been a tenuous one for Russell, usually tilting in favor of his considerable lyrical prowess. But on The Man, the experimentation with different instruments and playing styles brought the balance back to a mostly rewarding place.
There are flashes of melodic growth on Modern Art, but like its predecessor (2001’s mostly forgettable Borderland), the record falls flat in the end. The beauty of Russell’s lyricism, even at the height of his powers, isn’t enough to carry the listener through the dull instrumentation.
There are exceptions to that rule. “Muhammad Ali” is a playful hum-a-along, an ode to the boxer and his place in cultural history rather than purely his prowess in the ring. Ali was an artist in his own right, Russell seems to argue, and he parlays Ali’s most famous saying, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” into an energetic, dare I say, melodic chorus. It’s a clearly a high point on the record, along with the bluesy “Racehorse Haynes”.
But the surprising “Ali” and raucous “Haynes” are lost amidst the lazy shuffle of Russell’s acoustic guitar and his pedestrian delivery on the rest of the disc, though some would argue that delivery is part of his folksy charm. Whatever. The fact of the matter is, Russell’s vocals are frequently boring and devoid of emotion, let alone charm. Nowhere is this most evident on the track that follows “Ali”, the utterly predictable and strangely familiar sounding “American Hotel”. You always know when Russell will change chords, let his voice waver from its gravelly slumber or pause for effect.
Like a lot of the so-called alt-country set, especially those of the singer/songwriter variety, Russell has become a parody of himself. How many times can you sing about the “red dust clouding the sun” in Oklahoma, as Russell does on “The Kid from Spavinaw” without it sounding overtly retro or contrived. It’s a sort of old-school pretension. Indie rockers have their dark blue vintage jeans and worn, tan-colored classic Peavy amps and the alt-country singer/songwriters have their black cowboy boots and songs about highways and empty bar stools. Neither is authentic and both are grating.
Impossible ruminations about who is “real” and who is a “tourist” aside, on Modern Art even Nanci Griffith’s patented chirp, which has its own limitations, is wasted in “The Ballad of Sally Rose” and “Bus Station”. But that’s not the most egregious of Russell’s missteps. The concept behind Modern Art , patching together a collection of songs about some of the great modern virtuosos, is a compelling one in theory. Nowhere was that promise more abundant than in the idea of combining Charles Bukowski’s “Crucifix in a Death Hand” with Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita”. But leave it to Russell to turn that wildly inventive concoction into another one-tone snooze fest. The words of Bukowski and the music of Zevon are powerful instruments, but both become blunt in the hands of Russell and fellow producers Andrew Hardin and Mark Hallman. Russell resorts to simply speaking Bukowski’s words over a lifeless version of “Carmelita”. The lack of creativity is mind-boggling.
Maybe it’s too easy to be too hard on Russell. No one could live up the reputation he has amassed and he can’t be blamed for the zealousness of his many vocal fans. Still, how can you not expect more from someone who includes quotes like “I guess I’m what America is all about” from Mickey Mantle in the liner notes. Whether the notion that Russell is indeed the one whom America is all about is intentional or not, it can’t be overlooked.