James McMurtry – Complicated Game

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It’s weird “liking” some artists.  I’ve seen McMurtry three times in concert.  I love his lyrics, his edge, his Lennon-esqe working class hero persona, and some really fine guitar work.  But that said, he comes across as a guy who is short on friends, or at least wearing.

Why?  Maybe it’s the way his eyes bore holes through his audience.  Maybe it’s his almost suffocating cynicism, shared between his lyrics and his vocal delivery.  Maybe because when he rises from negativity he peaks at observational. 

“Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun”

So begins Complicated Game, his first new CD since 2008.  Welcome back, sir.  It’s been too long. 

There are a couple of changes 61PAj6xYEqL._SY355_overall.  First and foremost, he’s less likely to distract the listener because his social themes are no longer in your face; they’re residing between the lines instead.  His narratives avoid straw men that he can deride or point fingers at others that he may have previously judged as culpable. 

Instead, the stories allow the characters or his reflections to have room to breathe – a soldier who returns home to a meager job prospect, a traveller whose girlfriend cheats on him while he’s away, fishermen tempted to cheat a little to get by, the unremembered people who inhabit a small town all their lives, learning the depth of a person in a relationship over time, and similar.  Good, mature work.  After six years of singing the same songs the same way, it was due.

That “way” has also changed.  This is not a fully acoustic album, but it’s toned down from where he’s been before.  And his producer did some work in bringing I some aces to lend a hand to the recording, such as Benmont Tench and Derek Trucks.   It’s one thing to say that the accompaniment is good.  But when a barbershop quartet actually suits a song well upon repeated listening (which in other places would be at risk of being a one-off joke), there’s been some thoughtful input to the process.  Hmm.  I need to revisit Peter Gabriel’s “Excuse Me.”  Also, kudos to McMurtry for stretching his singing style.  It wasn’t bad before, but it’s certainly a part of what sets this disc above his others.

As easily as the CD enters McMurtry mode, the exiting line is also works for reviewers who might be tempted to judge McMurtry for being judgmental.

“I don’t know what to say to you. I shouldn’t judge, but I often do”

4 of 5 STARS_thumb


(plus a half, even)

Recommended Tracks: “Copper Canteen,” “Carlisle’s Haul”

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