Although there was the live from Amsterdam set back in 2010, it’s just over six years since Jame McMurtry, the Texas singer-songwriter and son of Lonesome Dove novelist Larry, released any new material. His last studio album, Just Us Kids, was a politically potent affair fuelled by his disillusion with the state of the nation and the then Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war, most notably so on Cheney’s Toy and The Governor, the latter essentially John Sayles’ Silver City recast as a song. However, if the political overshadowed the personal there, Complicated Game, his tenth release, reverses the balances with greater focus on relationships, albeit ones lived in the shadow of the times.
Reminding the listener that he shares his father’s blue collar storytelling prowess, the album kicks off with Copper Canteen, its opening lines about a guy cleaning his gun after returning from a hunting trip, hoping to kill one more doe before the deer season ends, unfold into the narrator, suffocating with his stagnant life, trying to make the best of the hand he’s been played, remarking that his kids will never understand the hardships his generation endured and how “we turned into our parents before we were teens.”
The price that life exacts is a recurring theme; knowingly evoking Guthrie’s Ain’t Got A Home, the banjo accompanied Ain’t Got A Place concerns physical and spiritual rootlessness, the seven minute Carlisle’s Haul (based on actual off-season fishing trip he went on) tells of two ageing crabbers in Maryland, forced to turn to illegal means in order to “hang on to a pot to piss in” now that their traditional methods have become outmoded while, shifting from the water to the land, two numbers spin stories of farmers facing hard times. Set to Danny Barnes’ jangling bluegrass banjo, Deaver’s Crossing, loosely based on a family McMurtry knew as a kid, tells an inspirational tale of how the late titular farmer survived an accident that left him crippled, harvest blights, market crashes and the land repossessions that brought down his neighbours. The dusty, acoustic South Dakota, however, paints a rather different picture, told in the character of an Iraq war veteran who returns home to take up life as a rancher only to be brought low when a blizzard wipes out his stock and, realising that he “won’t get nothing here but broke and older”, reckons he might just as well re-enlist.
Not all the characters find life so bleak. Forgotten Coast is a slide guitar and piano blues boogie shuffle about kicking back and going fishing while, coloured by accordion, uillean pipes and sway along chorus, with a drawl that recalls John Prine and a melody that conjures A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Long Island Sound tells of a former Oklahoma native enjoying the good life now he’s relocated to work for a company in New York. But while these may be “the best days”, there’s still hints of regret about the life he left behind as he thinks of his old guitar and “the shotgun I got when I was nine” hidden away in the back of the closet and wonders whatever happened to his “long secret love”.
Old flames also flicker in You Got To Me, an acoustic slow waltzer featuring Benmont Tench on keyboards and Ivan Neville on backups, where a return to his hometown for a late September wedding brings back memories of being a younger man, the girl he fell for one Christmas weekend and how he’s “not known quite that feeling since”.
Elsewhere there’s relationships of various hues; the country waltzing two-step She Loves Me, spins an ‘open’ arrangement wherein the agreement is she can take a lover while he’s away on the road, with all parties of the understanding that it’s merely a temporary state of affairs and that love remain constant; driven by spooked staccato banjo, prowling electric guitar and a heavy drum beat, the spoken verses tumbling over themselves in vintage Dylanesque rap, a swampy blues How’m I Gonna Find You Now has the caffeine-high narrator ominously scouring the streets for a woman who may or may not left him; and These Things I’ve Come To Know is streaked with romanticism as he lists all those little things he loves (going commando, fixing her own car, running drunks out of her bar) about the strong and fiercely independent woman who owns his heart.
The album closes on its darkest note with the solo acoustic Cutter, a raw (and undoubtedly allegorical) portrait of the emotional and psychological fallout from a breakup, the title setting you up for such wrenching confessions as “I cut myself sharp and deep, it’s the only thing that lets me sleep”, but that, while it may keep the pain inside suppressed, “the red ridges I cannot hide, they’re on the outside.”
A couple of exceptions aside, it’s not the most uplifting or optimistic of listens, but, in its storytelling’s unflinching and sharp observations of lives we can all recognize, delivered with unembellished honesty and deep empathy, it may well prove one of the finest Americana albums of the year.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released March 2 via Blue Rose
Order via Amazon