One Heart Goin’ Both Directions: Miranda Lambert considers contentment

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“I’ve got a track record,” admits Miranda Lambert on her seventh solo album, as if we don’t already know it; as if we haven’t seen the supermarket tabloids, or carefully considered her unassailable catalog of songs about kerosene dreams and mama’s broken hearts; about loving and leaving, often in a shower of gunpowder and lead. Wildcard references the darkest implications of those songs occasionally, obliquely, noncommittally; in “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” Lambert won’t be bothered to dirty her hands bumping off a cheatin’ fool, though you could perhaps talk her into hiring someone to make it all look like an accident. The restlessness that runs through Lambert’s songbook is nevertheless crucial subtext here, often out of sight but seldom out of mind: This is an album that uses personal history and public mythology as context for hard-won serenity and joy. It turns admissions of personal weakness into declarations of strength; it lends wisdom to songwriting tropes that have occasionally teetered close to youthful caricature. For all the justifiable talk about how Wildcard is distinct in Lambert’s catalog— how it’s her party record, her rock and roll record, her New York record— its power is felt most fully when you know the backstory.

This fresh chapter does bring some shake-ups, notably in the producer’s chair; until now all of Lambert’s albums, including the three with Pistol Annies, have been helmed by Frank Liddell. For this one she enlisted Jay Joyce (Brothers Osborne, Ashley McBryde, Eric Church), who swaps lived-in earthiness for a glistening sheen. Wildcard revels in surface-level pleasures; “Mess with My Head,” tightly-wound pop perfection, delivers a high that’s every bit as rapturous and ephemeral as the one-night-stand that it documents. The album sounds as loose and as colorful as any Lambert has made: The guitars are gnarly and loud, the drums have plenty of snap. Lambert’s pop songs are confectionary delicacies; “Track Record” rides a featherweight New Wave synth, while “Settling Down” surrenders its anxieties to chiming guitars and swirling keyboards. Elsewhere, Joyce dresses up the rootsier material with stylized remove; “Holy Water” brings in a gospel choir and swamp-rock sleaze, and “Way Too Pretty for Prison” feels as sturdy as a classic R&B ballad, as trashy as a garage rock knockoff. In “Locomotive,” harmonica wails over an off-the-rails groove, and the singer wails even louder; it’s raucous country-blues filtered through the New York Dolls’ scruff. Lambert has always been equal-parts country traditionalist and country disruptor, and Wildcard cleverly calls back to some of the pioneers whose disruptions in the 1980s and 1990s are almost taken for granted today; you might think of the agitated rock and roll attitude of Steve Earle circa Guitar Town, but more than anything Wildcard nods to the kineticism and elasticity of King’s Record Shop, the landmark album from Rosanne Cash— a trailblazer whose influence looms large over Lambert and so many of her peers.

Lambert and Joyce keep the feel so light and breezy, you might almost overlook the high level of craft, evident even when Lambert indulges in frivolities (all of them welcome following the magnificent but demanding ballast of 2016’s The Weight of These Wings, still her deepest album). “It All Comes Out in the Wash” hawks detergent and promises, no matter what you’re going through, that this too shall pass; it’s proud down-home cornpone but savvier than it seems, and Lambert reads its hokey vernacular as holy writ, wringing countless delights from her deep Texas drawl. “Tequila Does,” Wildcard’s purest honky tonk, sounds at first like it may collapse under its heavy-handed bordertown rhymes (“with a blonde senorita/ and a tall margarita”), but it reveals itself to be a smart piece of writing with a timeless premise: Dudes generally don’t live up to their lofty promises, but booze is pretty reliable. It’s one of the happiest songs you’ll ever hear about going home from the bar all by your lonesome. And what about “White Trash,” which opens the album amid a flurry of digitally-processed banjo notes? Maybe Lambert’s thumbing her nose at the purists, or maybe she just feels like country music is meant to be a gas.

Of course there’s another big shake-up in Lambert’s life, and that’s Brendan McLoughlin, the New York City cop Lambert met and married in the year spanning Interstate Gospel and Wildcard. Perhaps newlywed bliss is one explanation for the album’s cheerful countenance, but Lambert seems to intuit something that Chance the Rapper learned the hard way: Writing persuasively about contentment is easier said than done. To that end, Wildcard isn’t as carefree as it sounds. In “How Dare You Love,” one of a couple of Ashley Monroe co-writes, Lambert describes romance as something that happened to her when she was looking the other way, its capriciousness exciting but maybe a little disconcerting. (Can anything that gives also take away?) “Settling Down” is a tug of war between her inbuilt wanderlust and her aspirations for hearth and home; she’s “one heart goin’ both directions,” with “one love and a couple of questions,” and the song abides tension rather than offering a conclusion. Wildcard wraps up with the neon squalor of “Dark Bars,” where Lambert is sober and not especially sad but still drawn to the dingy ambiance of heartache and desperation. What does it say about her that she concludes her most unsettled albums with songs of healing, and her most bucolic one with a song of unease? On Miranda Lambert albums, there are no uncomplicated emotions.

Lambert’s history makes both her frivolities and her complexities feel weightier. Indeed, the most rewarding way to experience Wildcard is to imagine that Lambert’s still playing the same restless, sometimes reckless characters she’s inhabited since her debut, deepened by wisdom and experience. She feints in that direction in “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” where Lambert and Maren Morris realize they’ve got better things to do than play Thelma and Louise, a prospect that Lambert and Carrie Underwood were all too happy to entertain just five short years ago. And of course there’s “Track Record,” which picks up a heartbreak thread running through “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (where she was vengeful and violent), “Love Letters” (where she was rueful), and “Things That Break” (where she realized just how easily she makes a mess of every good thing that comes her way). “Track Record” doesn’t erase or downplay that history, but it does view it through a lens of grace and understanding; for what may be the first time, Lambert goes easy on herself. “Can’t help it, I’m in love with love,” she admits, a hungry heart whose biggest fault is the intensity of her devotion. She makes a similar case for herself in the folksy “Bluebird,” where her loves and losses are seen in the broader context of her own flinty resilience. That’s the point of “Locomotive,” too: “I don’t run out of steam,” she boasts, and what these songs amount to is a total recontextualization of the heartache narrative she’s been writing since Kerosene, one she sees clearer than ever as a tale of hard knocks, survival, and maturation.  “I know a thing or two about broken hearts,” she sings in “Dark Bars.” Maybe that’s why she ended this album on a relative downer: For as frisky and innocent as these songs may sound, every one of them is a song of experience. 

A Dog for the End of Days: Elbow counts the cost

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“For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.” – W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

You only have to listen to a few seconds of Giants of All Sizes, the eighth and most unsettled Elbow album, before the Son of God makes an appearance. He’s here not as the object of worship but the casualty of apostasy; “I don’t love Jesus anymore,” growls singer Guy Garvey, his voice betraying nary a trace of lingering faith or affection. His is a deconversion story born of sorrow; belief battered and buffeted and gradually whittled down to raw fatigue. It’s a fitting opening confession for an album besieged by trial— by death, crumbing relationships, collapsing empires, governmental dysfunction. “You’ve been all over, and it’s been all over you,” Bono once observed, and he might as well have been writing a review of this Elbow record; it sounds like the work of men who’ve been through the wringer, whose very bones now shudder in weariness; a bruised admission of surrendered ideals and depleted optimism. “I was born with a trust that didn’t survive,” Garvey sings at one point, an admission of innocence lost. Elsewhere, he asks: “How d’you keep your eyes ablaze/ in these faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days?” It’s not a rhetorical question. Elbow never offers an answer. 

Take all of this as evidence of what a special band Elbow is, and always has been. It is difficult to imagine an album quite as candid, doleful, or meditative as this coming from the band’s forefathers, nor their contemporaries. Bono’s troupe has doubled down on their inclinations to be all things to all people, to offer anthems of revolutionary fervor and messianic intent; they require of themselves a brave public face, and you’d have to go back decades for any real acknowledgment of the toll it’s taken. It is impossible to imagine U2 ever making an album about how tired they are. Radiohead is better at acknowledging malaise, to the point of almost fetishizing it, but their music revels in the alien whereas Elbow is unerringly terrestrial, neighborly, friendly. Coldplay has a gift for euphoria, which they conjure to fill stadiums or light up the dance floor, but Elbow alone wields majesty with humility, patience, and restraint; the grandeur of Giants of All Sizes is designed not for maximum populism but for quiet moments of solace and introspection. For an antecedent, look not to Elbow’s fellow rock and rollers, but to Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation. Nick Cave’s Ghosteen. Albums that abide grief without trying to revolve it.

They are a rock band like no other, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that, on Giants of All Sizes, they never really rock in any conventional sense at all. It’s an album that favors refined tempos and leisurely sprawl,which is not to say that it resists noise or abrasion: “White Noise White Heat” cranks up the guitars with lurching, mechanical riffs, while “Empires” bristles with an itchy, restless energy, as though Garvey’s anxieties have spread across his body like an outbreak of hives. Elbow albums have always gestured toward their love of prog rock, and here they get good and crunchy on the shape-shifting opener “Dexter & Sinister,” a snake that sheds its skin again and again, ultimately revealing a soaring vocal hook from Jesca Hoop. “The Delayed 3:15” is a study in permutation and build, winding its way from a slinky clarinet solo into a cathartic swell of strings. More typical of the album’s warm, genial ambiance is “Seven Veils,” wispy and unforced, a swirl of ethereal keyboards that ratifies Elbow’s easeful way with melody. “Doldrums” stutters and sways, and Garvey leans into its tipsy cadence with a jumble of fast-talking bravado. “Weightless,” a particularly diaphanous take on the band’s rafter-raising balladry, lives up to its title.

Garvey’s songwriting documents different forms of heavy-heartedness, often in compact, impressionistic stanzas. “Weightless” celebrates his new son but also eulogizes his father, whose loss looms large over these nine bereaved confessions, with a tight 25-word verse that’s sung just twice (“He was weightless in my arms,” Garvey remembers, a striking note of fragility). “The Delayed 3:15” is only slightly more expansive, taking two short verses to paint a picture of working class enervation so subtle, you can almost miss its surprise ending in suicide-by-train (“you’re just the man whose blues/ stopped his heart beneath our shoes”). “White Noise White Heat,” about London’s Grenfall Tower tragedy, quakes in impotent rage. “Seven Veils” is ravishingly romantic, Garvey singing in his most intimate croon, yet it’s the soundtrack not to a tender embrace but a final goodbye. So much of Giants of All Sizes is concerned with beautiful and sovereign things brought to ruin. “Baby, empires crumble all the time/ pay it no mind/ you just happened to witness mine,” one song goes; it’s a line loaded with Brexit fatigue but could just as easily be about bodies brought low by time and experience; good fortune plundered by entropy and inevitability. 

Maybe that sounds like a dispiriting turn for a band who told us, just one album back, that “it’s all gonna be magnificent.” But the point of Giants of All Sizes is not to revel in gloom so much as to bear a truthful witness. Garvey’s lyrics, so sensitive and terse, don’t linger or wallow in one place for long. What makes a bigger impression is the general sense of burnout. This is an album that counts the cost that comes with clinging to optimism in perilous days; it abides lost faith and dashed hopes on behalf of all who feel beleaguered, and it does so with integrity. (A single dip into “love is the answer” or “everything’s gonna be ok” cliches would have made this entire record ring phony, and Elbow seems to have recognized it.) “How can a bland unremarkable typical Tuesday be Day of the Dead?” Garvey wonders in “Empires,” suggesting the mundanity of rot, the casualness with which evil eras rise up like lions to devour us. And in “Dexter & Sinister,” he insists that he’s “not a dog for the end of days.” But that’s really not his choice to make. None of us get to choose the times we inhabit, nor our proximity to decay and collapse. We are beset with darkness and asked to make the most of it. Giants of All Sizes finds a band long known for its positive vibes admitting that it’s grueling to be a keeper of the flame. It’s consolation for days when it feels like hope has been extinguished. 

Still on the Borderline: The haunting of Baby Rose

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There are no clean getaways. Take it from soul singer Baby Rose, whose transfixing debut album, To Myself, documents relationships that have collapsed, but still exert their own inescapable gravity. Over and over, Rose pledges that she’s making a break, turning a corner, starting a new chapter; and over and over— in fits and starts, broken intentions and faltering relapses— she finds that it’s not so easy. “Maybe if I could just stop/ thinking of him I’ll be fine,” she speculates in “Borderline,” a conclusion that’s simple in theory but seemingly impossible in execution; like willing yourself not to think about a pink elephant. And in “Mortal,” a junkie’s confession set to a punishingly slow beat, she admits that she’ll “pick the pieces up then come running back every time,” all too ready to revisit the scene of her trauma. These are songs that posit love as a kind of ghost story, a haunting that outlasts physical embrace. In “Artifacts,” Rose is a lovestruck amnesiac, sifting through the ruins and relics of a failed relationship, trying to piece together how it all went wrong and allowing herself the hope that next time will be different. Perhaps the entire album is a set of artifacts; scattered memories reassembled into a dazed testimony of love’s capricious grip.

There’s another sense in which To Myself feels like a haunting: Shrouded in mossy atmospherics and submerged in deep shadow, the album is as murky and unsettled as a midnight seance, with Rose summoning to the table the rattling spirits of all the music that raised her— the church songs she grew up singing, the jazz and funk and hip-hop records she inherited from her parents. The production, mostly from Tim Maxley, is organic but not necessarily warm, earthy but also uneasy. It’s an analog sound built from humming keyboards, clattering percussion, and pulsing bass, its persistent dankness unifying all the ghosts Rose has conjured. Indeed, To Myself is a work of seamless synthesis, musical reference points channeled into something holistic and idiosyncratic: Just listen to the stalking R&B banger “Ragrets,” as crisp and propulsive as an Amy Winehouse song, as gnarled and wrinkly as a D’Angelo jam. “Artifacts” is even nastier, a racket of clamorous cymbals, multi-tracked voices, and speaker-rattling bass; George Clinton’s sludgy funk by way of Miles Davis’ 70s-era din. Far from being academic excursions into classicist song structures, these tracks are evocative and fully-embodied; listen again to “Mortal,” a slow-burning blues that dramatizes the agony of desire with bruising physicality. Or, to its tonal opposite, “In Your Arms,” which rides a trip-hop beat and gauzy synths into a weightless chorus, a dream of desire. Rose has obviously metabolized a lot of rap records (among her influences she cites Outkast and other southern eccentrics; she’s also worked with J Cole), and you can hear it in the easeful way she slips into clipped, percussive cadences: “When we were together/ I was like spouse/ right beside you/ playing house.” Her voice encompasses an entire vocabulary of rasps and moans, desirous coos and punchdrunk slurs; the quasi-title track “All To Myself” feels like the album’s beating heart precisely because it puts her weathered instrument at the center, accompanied by little more than piano and church organ.

Rose wrote the material on To Myself in the aftermath of a tumultuous breakup, one she says still holds her in its orbit; these 10 songs suggest someone who remains too deep in the shit to see the larger narrative, so instead she offers fragmented memories, conflicting emotions, shards of memoir and tatters of resolve. The album plays like an insomniac’s free-associative tailspin, veering sharply between anger and sorrow, an iron will to move forward and weak-kneed entreaties to go back to the way things here. “I’ll make it right until it all goes wrong,” she pledges on “Sold Out,” the spooky album opener; you can hear that same tension throughout the record, the push and pull between healthy intentions and inevitable self-destruction. Just because you’re through with love, these songs suggest, that doesn’t mean love’s through with you. It’s one of the oldest stories there is, but it’s also Baby Rose’s story. To Myself is a moody and masterful telling.

Love’s Like That, You Know: Nick Cave sees things as they are

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“There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hands,” sings Nick Cave on Ghosteen, his doleful new album with the Bad Seeds. It’s as if he’s granting himself permission for the 11 stark, revealing confessions that occupy these 68 minutes—songs that cling tightly to vanished bodies and phantom limbs; songs that try to to wrap big bear hugs around ghosts and vespers; songs that pledge an intimacy that will last forever, in a world where moth and rust destroy. It’s the first album Cave has conceived since the sudden death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur. (Woebegone though it sounded, Skeleton Tree was largely finished when the accident occurred, its bleak lamentations prescient, perhaps, but not diaristic.) It is at once easy and right to hear Ghosteen as an extended meditation on grief, though it is also worth noting that Cave— seldom one to wear his intentions on his sleeve— never uses the word grief nor even death in these new songs. There’s another word that comes up time and time again, however. “I’m speaking of love now,” Cave sings in the title track, as if that’s not what he’s been speaking about this entire time. Ghosteen is an album about bonds that linger even when flesh and blood turn to vapor; and, about tending to the gardens of a marriage, even when both partners are hobbled by sorrow. You can hear the album as a collection of ghost stories, one in which the spirits themselves rarely appear; mostly we see frail humans going about their daily affairs, as though nothing’s changed, as though everything has. In one of many moments of heartbreaking candor, Cave sings about doing the laundry for someone you’ve lain in the ground. Life’s little rhythms, its daily devotions and acts of service, persist even through shattering disruption. “Love’s like that, you know,” Cave ventures.

Ghosteen is singularly sad, a season of fathomless lament and senseless tragedy preserved in amber; and yet, it’s nowhere close to being the insular downer that you might anticipate. Cave is essentially sitting shiva here. Rather than holing up in a dark room, he’s opened his doors and peeled back the curtains, inviting us, as though we were his very kin, to sit with him in his hour of crisis; to honor his loss with the fullness of our attention, and to receive the generosity of his unmasked witness-bearing. Like the recent Over the Rhine record, Love and Revelation, Ghosteen displays a real wisdom in not rustling for answers, nor reaching for platitudes to tell us everything will be okay. It won’t be, these songs suggest, and there is therapeutic value in simply abiding that truth together. The plainspoken need in these songs reflects the transparency of Cave’s Red Hand Files newsletter, and his ongoing questions-and-answers tour; and, it is reflected in the music itself, as starkly beautiful as anything in the Bad Seeds catalog. Cave says this album completes a trilogy that began with the murmuring Push the Sky Away and reached a harrowing level of low-key abrasion in Skeleton Tree; Ghosteen takes the weightlessness and perspicuity of those recordings and stretches them to their logical extremes. It is the most ambient Bad Seeds album, the most quiet, and the one most demanding to be played loud. Almost entirely drumless, the album wafts and pulses with the sound of analog synths, occasionally rusted over in dirty feedback loops, anchored here and there by Cave’s piano. “Waiting for You,” crisp and romantic, recalls the formal precision of The Boatman’s Call, but more characteristic of the album is “Spinning Song,” which heralds the earthy rock and roll swagger of Elvis Presley above the drone and hum of an vintage keyboard. The record sounds wispy, at times spartan, but it’s also disarmingly beautiful: “Bright Horses” builds from the hymn-like austerity of the piano and the twinkle of a vibraphone into cathartic swells of wordless human voices. It is to the eternal credit of the Bad Seeds that they mostly let their leader hold the spotlight here, though Warren Ellis brings his film scoring bona fides to bear in songs like “Night Raid,” so atmospheric, so drizzly and damp that when Cave’s lyrics reference rainfall, it almost feels superfluous; it’s a perfect concert of dank sound effects and muggy imagery. At the center of all of this is Cave, confessing, confiding, consoling; no, he has never sounded older, but neither has he ever sounded more open or free.

Not for the first time, we hear Cave searching for God from the depths of the abattoir; and just like last time, the results of his questing aren’t entirely conclusive. In “Fireflies,” a spectral spoken word piece toward the album’s end, he scavenges in vain for any sign of the Master’s hand. “There is no order here, nothing can be planned,” he confesses, his divine discontent no less pious than that of the blameless and upright Job. But his struggles for belief seem underscored with an implicit cry for the Lord to help his unbelief. In “Waiting for You” he turns his gaze to a priest and a Jesus freak, both surrendered to the idea that all the present heartache will lead eventually to Christ’s glorious return; Cave isn’t quite there, but he’s tantalized by the solace that a faith vocabulary can bring. Jesus himself is invoked throughout the album, never riding a white horse in victory but only ever lying in his mother’s arms, a crucified son; the Jesus of the downtrodden and the persecuted, the meek and the disinherited. Meanwhile, Cave envisions in “Sun Forest,” we’re all swaying alongside him on some manner of hanging tree. There’s a similarly grim picture painted in “Bright Horses,” where “we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” The self-evident cruelty of the physical world makes him all the more eager to take up the vision of faith, and for half an instant, it lets Cave see past the abattoir and into the highlands, his voice curling however briefly in tantalizing joy (“I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord”). But the song ends as Bruce Springsteen’s “Tucson Train” does, with the protagonist waiting at the railroad station for an absent loved one to return; in both cases hopes run high, and in both cases it’s unclear whether the holy fool will see his good faith rewarded.

Even in Ghosteen’s roaring quiet and its plainspoken candor, Cave never sounds like he’s alone. If loss has been a catalyst for faith, it’s also been an empathy generator; maybe that’s the point of “Hollywood,” which closes the album with an ominous 14 minutes of clattering low-end rumble. Toward the end of the song, Cave recounts the Buddhist parable of Kisa, who loses her son and is told by the teacher that she can revive him if only she finds a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. Of course, no such household exists; “everybody is always losing somebody,” Cave laments, death not just a momentary interruption but a continuous degradation. It’s a sobering reflection that Cave renders beguilingly beautiful in “Galleon Ship,” where he envisions himself taking to the sky in search of solace. “For we are not alone it seems,” he wonders, “So many riders in the sky/ The winds of longing in their sails.” Loss can feel isolating, but here Cave imagines his trauma as part of a great cloud of witnesses. There is also the witness of Cave’s lost son, manifest here as a fuzzy shape at the end of a corridor, as “a wish that time can’t resolve,” even as the wandering spirit Ghosteen who arrives with strange tidings of comfort and peace. His presence hovers over the margins of these songs, while Cave’s wife and Arthur’s mother, Susie Bick, often seems to occupy the center of the frame. The album is generous in remembering that the grief over a child is never proprietary, and unflinching in portraying the ways it can fray the bonds of marriage. “Ghosteen” alternates between the mundanity of loss and hallucinatory visions beyond the physical realm, at one point settling into a strange and unsettling scene of three bears in a post-traumatic funk: “Mama Bear holds the remote/ Papa Bear, he just floats/ And Baby Bear, he has gone.” In “Night Raid,” Cave looks back to the evening when his twin sons were conceived, seeing it now through a veil of tears; the suffering Jesus is there as well, promising hardship from the start. In “Waiting for You,”  husband and wife mourn in chilly silence; all he can offer her is time and fidelity (“just want to stay in the business of making you happy”). “Spinning Song” opens the album with scenes of Elvis and Priscilla, a rock and roll couple fated for tragedy— yet even facing down doom, the narrator has devotion on his lips: “And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you,” he pledges. It’s a promise he returns to in “Leviathan,” a subterranean trance that serves as the album’s fulcrum. “I love my baby and my baby loves me,” chants Cave, as though lifting up his daily prayers. It’s one sure thing he can lay his hand to— at least for now.

Riffs & Reveries: Guitar odysseys from The Messthetics, Tinariwen, and Bruce Cockburn

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Just close your eyes and listen and you might almost convince yourself that The Messthetics were test tube engineered by some ax-obsessed mad scientist, designed to highlight every conceivable expression of electric guitar heroics. Novices should begin with the group’s self-titled 2018 debut, a library of riffs and a testament to the elasticity of the power trio. Then, when you’re ready for the real brain melt, dive into Anthropocosmic Nest, the wirier and more disruptive follow-up; an album that conveys the same technical prowess as their debut, but jolts it with the gutsiness and bravado that only a year of steady touring can bring. This is a band equally adept at building locomotive grooves and then ripping them open with crackling pyrotechnics; at crafting immaculately linear rock and roll songs, then allowing them to dissolve in bursts of static and noise. Anthropocosmic Nest is demonstrably more anarchic than its predecessor, but what makes it lovable is the ease with which The Messthetics shift between clean, conceptual playing and the biggest, dumbest, most lumbering riffs imaginable: check “Scrawler,” where a clattering countdown launches the band into throttling, in-the-red punk, then deep-space jazz noodling. “Drop Foot” thrashes and bashes but then takes a strange detour into junkyard percussion and knob-tweaking chirrup, as if the band is suddenly caught in a swarm of chirping cicadas. Don’t confuse it with “Insect Conference,” a weird minute and a half of twittering sound effects. And don’t let either of those songs fool you into thinking The Messthetics don’t do straight-ahead beauty: “Pacifica,” coasts through wave after wave of glorious melody, its moody atmospherics suggesting an alternate timeline in which The Messthetics play straight shoegaze; you’ll even hear an acoustic guitar in “Because the Mountain Says So,” as clarion as a folk song, as insistent as arena rock. These songs are epic in their build and patient in their pacing, and set the stage for at least one more curveball: “La Lontra,” the next to last song on the album, may be its sleaziest rock and roller of all. Scratch the shoegaze thing; maybe what this band was really cut out for is hair metal?

The Messthetics’ restless spirit is more than equalled by Tinariwen, a caravan of literal nomads whose new Amadjar was assembled on the go, recorded guerilla-style at campsites throughout the Sahara. The album’s title is translated as the foreign traveler, and at first blush it seems like it could have been affixed to most any album the group has made since its 1979 inception, each one of them bearing witness to the roving curiosity and low-key political dissidence of these Tuareg exilees. Upon closer listen, devotees may find that Amadjar captures their rambling nature—the paradoxical way in which they sound so tethered to their particular part of the Earth yet also so defined by their transience and homelessness— as vividly as any Tinariwen album to date. The relaxed and intoxicating album, devoid of anything you could justifiably call a rocker, drones and swirls with loose guitar jams that stretch into endless night; campfire rags featuring call-and-response singing of hymnal austerity and pentecostal fervor. One thing that sets the album apart from other Tinariwen releases is how they’ve opened their caravan to other wayfarers, allowing a number of similarly restless non-African musicians to overdub textures, wrinkles, and vibes of their own. These post-production effects are so organic you might not be able to place them without consulting the album credits; the closest to being ostentatious is probably Micah Nelson, whose spritely mandolin on “Taqkal Tarha” finds the connective tissue between Tinariwen’s African traditionalism and American folk, gospel, and blues. Stephen O’Malley, of the band Sun O))), adds sinister cinema to the ghostly “Wartilla,” a minor-key lament where dexterous finger-picked guitar seems like it’s being sucked into a black hole of electric drone. Bad Seed Warren Ellis shows up several times to add mournful violin, and Cass McCombs enmeshes his own guitars with the band’s thick bramble. These guests all supply welcome accents and color, but they never steal the spotlight from Tinariwen’s endlessly hypnotic weave of guitars, hand claps, and community sing-along vocals. Those with a fluency in the band’s native tongue will identify plenty of agitation in their lyrics, but even if you can’t offer a literal translation, you’ll still feel like you’re basically speaking the same language: Theirs is a musical vocabulary of pilgrimage, of peace and community amidst rootlessness and upheaval. What could be more universal?

On the topic of pilgrims making progress, consider Canadian troubadour Bruce Cockburn, whose close to three dozen (!!) singer/songwriter albums document a lifelong wrestling match with the Almighty, plus an extended inquiry into pancultural musical traditions. Crowing Ignites is only his second album of purely instrumental acoustic guitar music, and what astonishes about it is how it conveys the same characteristics that make his sung poetry so compelling; these compositions are literate, questing, and mystical, seeming at once tranquil and disquieted. A couple of elegiac cycles come toward the front of the album— “Easter” is a contemplative resurrection reverie, “April in Memphis” a procession through actual funeral bells— but his pensiveness is offset here by a handful of earthy surprises. Cockburn doles out snarling blues licks on “The Moan,” but better still is “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz,” swingin’ after-hours jazz guitar complete with brushed cymbals and the sympathetic groan of a muted trumpet (the latter supplied by coronet master Ron Miles). All of this is recorded by producer Colin Linden in immaculate clarity, and suggests that Cockburn is as enraptured by sound and texture as he is high-concept songwriting; consider “Bells of Gethsemane,” where the rustle of acoustic strings stands out against the backdrop of haunted chimes and singing bowls, its very title evoking the Christ-hauntedness that’s always animated Cockburn’s music. There’s a resourcefulness of sound on other songs, too: “Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley” features guitar strings that thrum and drone in simulation of Scottish bagpipes, while “Seven Daggers” cuts a crooked path through chiming kalimba, the tactility of Cockburn’s playing shrouded in otherworldly mist. Such excursionary arrangements mirror the album’s probing spirit: His fleet-fingered playing keeps these songs in perpetual motion even when the mood is reflective, trying to lay his hands to revelation beyond words.

Wouldn’t Be the Same Port Arthur: Rodney Crowell’s uncertain Texas

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In 2001, Rodney Crowell released an album called The Houston Kid, a loose collection of myths and memories based on his own upbringing in the Space City. It’s one of several superb Crowell albums to set sharply-drawn character studies and propulsive narratives against the backdrop of his native Texas, local color inevitably spilling across the margins and tethering the stories to a specific piece of American soil. But if The Houston Kid was a portrait of the artist as a young man, the new Texas is more like a landscape painting, its very title suggesting a wide-angle view. It may be the first Crowell album where characters and stories cede the spotlight to cultural topography; here, local color is the protagonist, the animating force that gives Crowell’s songs their pungent flavor and narrative weight. In this stew of local vernaculars, the big picture looms in and out of focus, but all the little details are evocative and specific. Indeed, Crowell’s guided tour of the Lone Star State is biased and idiosyncratic, and probably not approved by the tourism bureau; it maps out landmarks and legends with the casualness that only a native son can muster, and its candor about the state’s shortfalls and contradictions only bolsters the sincerity of its hometown pride.

Crowell is much too smart to try to draw clean lines around the musical legacy of Texas; as a field guide to what Texas really sounds like, it’s abridged, lovingly curated, and more intent on capturing feel than recording a proper musicology. What might have been a sampler platter of country, rock, blues, troubadour traditions, and bordertown imports is instead a cheerfully porous intermingling of all of the above, its relationship to genre emphasizing fluidity over precision. Texas has a restless energy and jostling momentum that make it feel like a party record, even though it slips often into folksy introspection; imagine a jocular get-together where Guy Clark holds court with songs and stories, but Doug Sahm commands the playlist and provides a freewheeling ambiance. Crowell’s celebration comes with a Texas-sized guest list, and he slots local legends into supporting roles with the savvy of a great casting director (or a hitmaking rap A&R boss). When Billy Gibbons stops by, it’s to sleaze things up in the grease ‘n’ grind of “56 Fury.” Lyle Lovell croaks the chorus of “What You Gonna Do Now,” adding just the right touch of droll surrealism; Steve Earle shows up on “Brown & Root, Brown & Root,” affixing his gravelly authority to words like “infrastructure” and “Haliburton” and grounding Crowell’s fragrant impressionism to real-world political ambivalence. Even Ringo Starr is present, sending cymbals clanging and clattering across the pounding “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable.” (When you’re a Beatle, you belong to the world; perhaps Lubbock has nearly as much claim to him as Liverpool does.) Crowell hears the particular music in the crags and crevices of great Texas accents, and orchestrates it with precision: “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” finds Ronnie Dunn wrapping his smooth, operatic drawl around a rhapsody of chiggers and beer; then, a never-seedier Willie Nelson uses his roughed-up twang to request “a dimebag of dirt weed”— astonishingly, the first time he’s ever sung those words into the public record.

Texas revels in regionalism. More than any other Rodney Crowell album, this one suggests a songwriter who is as watered by the poetic tradition as the folk tradition, and many of the lyrics are put across through gnarled dialects and hyper-specific signifiers. In the lithe rock and roller “Flatland Hillbillies,” he zeroes in on a particular genus of redneck who seem to have a firm grasp on their particular social station: “River rats and jon boat shrimpers/ Trouble in our DNA/ It wouldn’t be the same Port Arthur/ If we got up and moved away.” He captures a working-class value system with even greater specificity in “56 Fury,” where the dialog is so terse and so hardscrabble it feels like it could have come from a Cormac McCarthy novel (“Pontiac and Cadillac ain’t even fit for hauling hay.”) Crowell’s records often exude a gentlemanly elegance, but he’s always sounded gleeful whenever he has a chance to get down and dirty, and he finds plenty of them on Texas; listen to “Treetop Slim & Billy Lowgrass,” a crime farce set to jutting Texas two-step blues. It’s essentially the film Hell or High Water as directed by the Coen Brothers (“Treetop Slim and Billy Lowgrass/ Fredonia rangers dogging your ass”). Elsewhere, Crowell ratifies a longstanding Texas storytelling tradition that encompasses everyone from his mentor Guy Clark to up-and-comers like Hayes Carll; “I’ll Show Me” is grimly comedic, full of sadsack brags from a man defiantly self-destructive (“Man seeking unemployment/ no gig too big to blow”).

But if Texas draws its power from nuance, it also finds resonance in Crowell’s knack for writing microcosmically. The album-closing “Texas Drought, Part 1” chronicles scarcity and desperation, tumblin’ tumbleweeds and last-ditch prayers; its austere beleaguerment is translatable across all kinds of weather, and the second half of its title suggests that if some problems have solutions, others just leave you hanging. Crowell’s Steve Earle team-up is a mudraker’s chronicle in the Woody Guthrie vein, and a psalm of lament for all the human collateral that’s left in the wake of capital progress. And a wispy song called “The Border,” featuring John Jorgenson, uses a political hot zone to meditate on the moral contradictions and psychic corrosion that we all keep in close proximity. In it, a law enforcement agent arrives home to his wife and takes off his bulletproof vest, but he can’t shake the things he saw on the job. He tells himself “it’s just the border,” hoping the misery he sees is tied to a place and not endemic to the human heart; he hardly sounds sure of it. It’s one of several songs here where you feel like, the more geographically particular Crowell gets, the more he speaks for us all.

A Seat at the Table: The Highwomen abide multitudes

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Institutionalized misogyny at a glance: In 2019, exactly one woman has had a #1 single on Billboard’s Country Airplay charts; that would be Maren Morris and her self-reliance anthem “GIRL.” That’s not quite to say that women have been completely absent from the radio; if nothing else, they have provided fruitful subject matter for many of country music’s most venerated dudes and bros. Jason Aldean had a chart-topping hit with “Girl Like You,” where he assures his beloved that she has lips like cherries, eyes like diamonds, and a “body so gold”— shopworn imagery that does little to distinguish the object of his affection (emphasis on object). There’s also “Good Girl,” a #1 from Dustin Lynch that rhapsodizes his beloved as an “angel,” a “keeper,” and “the kinda thing you gotta lock down.” Such songs make it disturbing plausible that Morris, in addition to being the lone female to summit the charts, is also the only contemporary country hitmaker who has ever actually spoken to a woman before.

This dismaying situation was hardly lost on Amanda Shires, a key player in the Americana scene. Absorbing plenty of country radio from the confines of her tour bus, she was mortified by the gender disparity; so many gifted singers and songwriters ignored, so many everyday stories left untold. She aimed to do something about it, and like many aspiring revolutionaries before her, her plans involved starting a band. The Highwomen, a homegrown problem-solvers caucus, includes Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and, curiously enough, Maren Morris, whose chart success is the exception that proves the rule. Their self-titled debut was produced by Dave Cobb, and features low-key support from the likes of Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, and Yola. It’s a handsome set of songs, carefully designed to honor the voices and lived experience of women. If country radio ever gets wind of it, there may be pandemonium at the realization that ladies are more than red lips and diamond eyes. And if it doesn’t, the credible excuses are very limited indeed; surely by intention, The Highwomen have made a record that’s not just pure of heart but unerring in craft. Maybe there’s a good reason not to play this on the radio, but lack of merit ain’t it.

The group’s name references The Highwaymen, a mid-80s posse made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, back when each was still on’ry but on the downward slope of their commercial prime. Their theme song, the Jimmy Webb-penned “Highwayman,” mythologized rugged and manly men doing rugged and manly things, like brandishing weapons and working in construction. The Highwomen opens with a revisionist take on the song (co-credited to Webb), where all the macho stuff is replaced with a whispered history of the women who’ve been blotted from the public record— the waterlogged witches of Salem, Freedom Riders gunned down in their prime, traveling preachers with hellhounds on their trail. In robust harmony, the Highwomen declare themselves “the daughters of the silent generation,” standing in solidarity with women of the past whose quiet courage is too often left unsung. It’s obviously meant to be the band’s walk-on music, but at least two additional songs qualify as unofficial manifestos: There’s first single “Redesigning Women,” an unruly singalong where the Highwomen celebrate femininity with equal parts earnestness and jokes, sounding obviously proud of both (“when we love someone we take ‘em to heaven/ and if the shoe fits we’re gonna buy 11.”) You could also make a case for “Crowded Table,” a hymn of union, as the third bullet point in their mission statement; it’s a song about rolling up your sleeves to build the inclusive utopia Sleater-Kinney used to dream of, though the Highwomen cast it in the warmth of domesticity (“I want a house with a crowded table/ and a place by the fire for everyone”).

These songs triangulate the band’s politics, but it’s to their credit that The Highwomen isn’t all rallying calls and declarations of intent; they’re just as happy to show as to tell, and their material sticks up for the women who live in the margins of gender politics but don’t have the luxury of thinking about them every second of every day. (Possible summary of the album’s themes: Women have shit to do.)  In “My Only Child” (co-written with GOAT of GOATs and spirit-Highwoman Miranda Lambert), they linger over the particular pain and gratitude of the mother whose table isn’t quite as crowded as she’d like; it’s a quiet-storm tearjerker for the mom who wanted a big family but wouldn’t trade her lone progeny for anything in the world. There’s also Shires’ “Cocktail and a Song,” a fiddle-led wake written following her father’s diagnosis with terminal illness, which captures the particular tenderness between dads and daughters (“you’ve always been your daddy’s girl, nothing’s gonna change that now”). What The Highwomen argues implicitly is that stories like these are legion; so why don’t we hear them more often? As if to assert just how multitudinous the stories of women really are, the record ends with a Carlile number called “Wheels of Laredo,” an Old West set piece that recalls some of the conscious myth-making of The Highwaymen; hearing these women acquit themselves so ably in the hardscrabble outlaw vein almost feels like a victory lap. The song also appears on While I’m Livin, a Tanya Tucker comeback album co-produced and largely penned by Carlile. She’s spoken about wanting the song to become a kind of modern outlaw anthem, one that many different performers can sink their teeth into. The Highwomen literally set their own standards.

Any one of these dozen songs is tuneful enough to be a radio hit. Ironically enough, their fortunes on the charts may be hampered by the fact that they’re so grounded in traditional country craft. The Highwomen studiously resists the gurgling electronics, trap rhythms, and studio sheen that characterize Nashville’s pop vanguard, instead favoring a warm austerity that hearkens back to the values of the outlaw movement; it’s a sound that was mapped out by Hemby, long one of country’s most valued songslingers, and captured in an appealingly organic production from Cobb. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” begins with sawing fiddles that roll into jaunty barroom piano, Western swing with a hard edge; “Heaven is a Honky Tonk,” meanwhile, is an amiable, old-timey Gospel sway. These are sturdy constructions, rooted in decades of country record-making, but they aren’t museum pieces; for one thing, they’re too funny to be stodgy. The joke quotient is high, not least on “Don’t Call Me,” an uproarious dismissal where Shires tells her ex exactly where he can lodge any further inquiries or requests (“1-800-Go-To-Hell”). The classicist songwriting makes the one-liners sparkle, and it also helps cast at least some of these Highwomen in a new light; no one benefits from this context as much as Morris, who gets to show sides of herself her fine solo albums only hint at. Her “Loose Change” is one of the record’s understated delights, exhibiting a knack for taking plainspoken cliches and assembling them into something surprisingly barbed (“I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny one day/ instead of rolling around in your pocket like loose change.”)

Their embrace of country formalism makes it all the more striking when The Highwomen tweak the formula a bit, and a few songs pull the rug right out from under you. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” sung by Carlile but written by Shires and Isbell with Chris Tompkins, is a classic country infidelity song with a twist: The dude thinks he’s a couple drinks and a well-placed pick-up line away from sweeping a woman off her feet; he’s too dense to know he’s barking up the wrong tree, something the song’s narrator explains with wry understatement (“that’s too much cologne, she likes perfume”). Step back from it and you can hear the song as a meditation on abiding mysteries and multitudes. “No one you can name is just the one thing they have shown,” an old Joe Henry song posits, and The Highwomen bears witness. Just listen to “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” a tender and funny reminder that a woman is more than the sum of her children. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t want to today,” assures a loving but frazzled mom; just the kind of complicated admission for which The Highwomen have created safe harbor. They’re one of the only groups who would speak such things out loud; but they know as well as you do that they’re not alone.