James McMurtry: Complicated Game

JamesMcMurtry_ComplicatedGameA welcome return of McMurtry’s experience and imagination

It’s been seven years since singer-songwriter James McMurtry offered up an album of new material. His last release, 2009’s Live in Europe, recontextualized McMurtry’s societal observations in front of a European audience, and though the songs took on new shades in front of a foreign audience, the CD was still more of a tour memento than a new statement. Which leaves 2008’s Just Us Kids as his last full thesis. At the time, McMurtry’s observation fell upon broad social issues of political disorder, social isolation, economic disruption and ecological destruction. Seven years later, his concerns haven’t abated, but his songs narrow their focus to witness these larger issues at human scale.

The album’s opening track, “Copper Canteen,” finds its aging protagonists struggling to hang on to their small town life. The big box stores on the bypass loom over them, reframing broad questions about mass-scale marketing to personal issues of an individual town’s demise. Their fears find salve in nostalgic thoughts and the hope that they can hold on to retirement, as they remain fatalistic rather than desperate or bitter. Nostalgia threads through many of McMurtry’s new songs, with wanderers looking back to see where they lost the trail and community totems memorialized by those who remember. The portraits of hard-working fishermen, hard-luck ranchers and unemployed veterans are both inspiring and heartbreaking, and blend easily into songs of depression and escape.

Peeking through the darker scenes, there are a few glimmers of sunshine. The everyday details of “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” are rattled off in a monologue whose agitation reveals the narrator’s unspoken feelings, and the portraiture of “Things I’ve Come to Know” stems from the sort of intimacy that is born of time and devotion. On its surface, the album feels less overtly political than Just Us Kids, but the incisiveness of the lyrics turns these individuals’ stories into social commentary. McMurtry labels himself a writer of fiction, but the details he captures in songs like “Carlisle’s Haul” are too visceral to have been read in a book. He may fictionalize, but the people, places and language are as much experience as they are imagination.

Co-produced by CC Adcock (Lafayette Maquise, Lil’ Band O’ Gold) and engineer Mike Napoutiano, the guitar-bass-and-drums are augmented by well-placed touches of banjo and violin, and given added dimension from Hammond B3 (courtesy of Benmont Tench), moog bass (courtesy of Ivan Neville), Uilleann pipes, and various electric guitar sounds. The longer songs give the band a chance to play into the grooves, but the productions never lose sight of the vocals. McMurtry is a singer who tells stories, and a storyteller who sings melodies. At times he sounds like a more-melodic Lou Reed, with a half-spoken, half-sung style whose medium and message are inseparable. Seven years is a long time to wait for a new album, but in addition to McMurtry’s busy road schedule, songs this finely observed spring from experience rather than demand. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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