The thing with masters is that they appear to wield craft with such aplomb that they give the illusion of effortlessness.
Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry’s newest album, ‘Complicated Game’ builds on 2005’s ‘Childish Things’ and 2008’s ‘Just Us Kids’ to give just such musical mirage. But songwriting practitioners will assure you, this is a skill not easily acquired. It’s God given, Devil dealt or sweat earned.
Take, for example the album’s opener “Copper Canteen.” Though the song uses themes that Music City gleefully throws into commercial radio wood-chipper in McMurtry’s deft hands this small town serenaide is a broken hope chest. Inside are hard times, splintering generations, love, faith and hope backdropping simple pleasures like fishing, hunting, churching – hell there’s even a truck. It’s a nuanced and vivid emotional diorama of steadfast independance and weary pride.
“You Got To Me” finds McMurtry winding between a fall wedding and a woman that got under his skin before deciding to vamoose leaving him with ‘…all this empty down on top of me.” But
instead of a shattering heart pining away he’s left wiser as he declares ‘But I know a thing or two now.”
The rambling banjo and drums of “Ain’t Got a Place” fits nicely in this updated, expansively Buddhist version of the old hymn “This World Is Not My Home.” The released single ‘How’m I Gonna Find You Now’ is a beat-driven truckstop stomper is laced with what I think is a psychedelic banjo arrangement. While listening to the frenetic style of the song I was reminded of the opening chapters of HUnter S. Thompson’s Gonzo masterpiece “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” You can imagine the good Doctor screeching “Turn the goddam music up! My heart feels like an alligator!” while sucking on a pint of ether.
‘She Loves Me’ is where ‘Complicated Game’ get’s it’s title. A romantic triangle is rationalized by one of the right angels with trepidation and bravado against a wonderful doo-wop build up.
Given his lineage the literary comparison to McMurtry’s songs are lazy, but I’m a lazy bastard. ‘Complicated Game’ is a 12 song .38 magnum opus of narrative excursions of a fading heartland and road weary hearts.
Though his way with a rhyme is legendary McMurtry is no slouch on the guitar, but on ‘Complicated Game’ it’s noticeably subdued to strummed or picked acoustic or muted slide electric.
The inclusion of accordion, mandolin, banjo, piano and organ.
No list of great songwriters would be complete without McMurtry, but his skill of writing wry, empathetic songs of working-class life, while keeping his political cards close to his chest, is getting better where you thought there was no room for improvement. ‘Complicated Game’ is a great album that will last over years of listening. My money is it’ll improve where in those quiet, surprising places where there’s no room for improvement.