Like fellow country outsiders Steve Earle and Robbie Fulks, Dwight Yoakam doesn’t yield to new Nashville’s demands of cookie-cutter homogeny, rooting his style in the more traditional soil of Bakersfield, honky-tonk, and ’50s rockabilly. Since contemporary country audiences don’t actually listen to country music, but instead some bastardized pop-burdened substitute, Blame the Vain is unlikely to be a big hit — victim to another folly in the course of flawed logic. To overlook Blame the Vain is to essentially ignore what contemporary country music should sound like: a linear piece of progeny taking the past under advisement and making a case for the future.
Blame the Vain, Yoakam’s first album of new material since 2003’s Population Me, marks a number of new changes for the California-based artist: it’s the first for a new label (New West) and the first without longtime producer/guitarist Pete Anderson, who has been with Yoakam since his 1986 debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.. Yoakam took over the production reigns himself; taking Anderson’s place on guitar is Keith Gattis, a younger player involved in the underground country renaissance taking place in Los Angeles over the last few years. Despite all the artistic and personal upheaval surrounding it, Blame the Vain doesn’t suffer from some kind of transitional crisis — it’s pure, classic Yoakam, and another fine addition to his impressive 20-year catalog.
Yoakam’s records are the makings of a music lover, informed by significant archetypes of country and rock ‘n’ roll. Blame the Vain draws from a deep well of influences and integrates them into Yoakam’s trademark rave-ups and weepers: the title track opens the record with a string-buzzed feedback nod to the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine”; “I’ll Pretend” borrows the sober melody and rhythm of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”; “Three Good Reasons” cribs the hiccup-bounce of Elvis Presley’s Sun years; “She’ll Remember” is a country strut with Jackson Browne overtones; and there are echoes of the Band — notably Rick Danko — in the rich harmony vocal arrangements. Occasionally Yoakam’s eclectic inspirations get the best of him (“She’ll Remember” opens with some tongue-in-cheek proggy synths and faux-British spoken word that are unnecessary conceits), but such fumbles are thankfully rare.
Thematically, Blame the Vain is concerned with façades and self-deceit that mask the corollaries of heartbreak. Yoakam sounds thrilled to be so emotionally defeated, his twangy, sinewy voice sprouting legs on the rockin’ tracks and oozing solemnity on the ballads. Fueled by the sharp wit of classic country music, Yoakam navigates through the dozen songs of restless despondency by having his narrators transfer guilt, remain willfully ignorant, and hide behind humor. “I blame the vain / For what we wear / And I blame the blind / When we can’t see,” Yoakam sings in the record’s first moments, and it’s easy to see why: these are the songs of a weary soul whose good fortune equals watching “a heart as it lays dying” (the Haggardly “Lucky That Way”); whose idea of “just passin’ time” means “wrestlin’ thoughts that fight my sleep” (the slow faucet drip balladry of “Just Passin’ Time”); whose jilted lover retaliates by covering his Bud cap, boots, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. poster with neon green spray-paint (“Intentional Heartache”); and whose attempts at ultimatums are weak at best (“I’ll give you three good reasons for leaving / #1 is that I’ve forgotten #2” goes the refrain to “Three Good Reasons”). “Does it show / That I’m trying not to cry / Does it show / That every smile is a lie?” is the despairingly slow query of “Does It Show”; Yoakam’s weighty vocal answers his own question, whether it means to or not.
Of course it shows — Yoakam knows this to be true even if the song’s narrator refuses to. If it wasn’t transparent, “Does It Show” — and Blame the Vain — wouldn’t be as successful as it is. “The fact that she’s gone / Is bound to dawn on me eventually,” Yoakam concedes in the closing track “The Last Heart in Line”, an inevitable example of wising up, soaked in strings and horns. If Blame the Vain‘s examination of how we can be fooled by the obvious is symbolic of how Nashville has had its blinders on for years (fooling itself and its supporters), perhaps audiences will begin waking up to similar revelations. Blame the Vain, along with Fulks’s Georgia Hard, is a reminder that, in 2005, great country music still exists among us, even if it lurks outside of where it has traditionally belonged.