Mar 2, 2015

Album Review: James McMurtry - Complicated Game


By Kevin Broughton

“Honey, don’t you be yellin’ at me when
I’m cleanin’ my gun,
I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate
when deer season’s done.
We got one more weekend to go,
And I’d like to kill one more doe.”

[Note: It’s come to the author’s attention that a goodly number of FTM readers are consumers of mainstream “country” music. The couplets above are the opening lines of James McMurtry’s Complicated Game. On paper, it’s as “bro-country” as you can get, right? But he ain’t pretty, and he don’t shake his ass. Here’s your chance to learn something.]

James McMurtry hasn’t made a studio album in six years. And a quarter-century after Lonesome Dove author Larry’s son hung out his Texas songwriter’s shingle with Too Long in the Wasteland, he may have come full-circle. There are some constants, at least.

Wry humor. Desperation. Anger, sometimes the fist-shaking, political kind. Characters on the margins, and love just out of reach. These are what McMurtry fans have come to expect. But it’s always poignant. Funny or sad, you’re getting touched in the stomach. The new one turns it up a notch, and sets a new standard.

Complicated Game, on a label that bears the same name, is a stripped-down departure from Childish Things  and a slew of records on the Sugar Hill label. McMurtry came into his own in the 2000s, combining sharp – and often overtly political – lyrics with top-flight rock musicianship and arrangements.

This time, there’s arrangement-muscle in only a couple of cuts. “Deaver’s Crossing” and “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” (the latter a happy little speed-freak/stalker tune) are the only songs where discerning McMurtry fans will recognize the layering he’s subtly made his recent trademark. “How’m I Gonna Find You” is reminiscent of his frenetic, borderline hip-hop rants “Choctaw Bingo” and “Airline Agent;” just a little more desperate and a tad more funny.

But it’s the longing that sets this album apart. Longing for a different, better time, or a just-missed love. The comfortable love that peppers a couple songs is still looking for a little something better, whether it’s one more doe or a way to cash out before the Wal-Mart’s built.

Oh, there’s wisdom and reflection in every cut. The kind that makes you nod, smile and say, “Fuck. Of course. This.” There’s a trio of love songs that tie the thing together, though.

“Copper Canteen” opens the record, and we’re left with a good sense of middle-aged contentment. As borderline-rough as things might be, they’ll still be okay. And hell yes, I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate. (I imagine I’d have said that more than once, had I ever been married. ‘Nuff said.)

“These Things I’ve Come to Know” is the most romantic cut on the record, and with the most common touch. Who among us doesn’t know a hot-mess bartender who somehow keeps it together? And who among us hasn’t had that crush from a familiar barstool. You just…know. (Author’s speculation: She’s the same gal who said “Sit your drunk ass down" in another song.)

Any displaced Southerners among us who envisioned different lives for ourselves, long before we became middle aged? “Long Island Sound” will induce tears for a while. And it’ll be a while before you realize why…if you listen.

Which brings us back to you, Mainstream Country Fan. Do you have the stones to be emotionally challenged? Can you shake off the visual template of Nashville, long enough to listen in a discerning way?

This is McMurtry’s best record, and it ain’t close. And that was a high bar. He could put his pen and guitar down now, and his name will forever belong beside those of Lovett, Clark, Earle, and yes, Van Zandt. If you know those names, you know what the comparison implies.

If you don’t, listen to Complicated Game, and get a frame of reference. This one’s a crowning moment for one of the true and elite Texas craftsmen.


Complicated Game is available at iTunes, Amazon, Lone Star Music, and all the usual spots (but probably not Wal-mart).

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