The past continues to cast a looming shadow over Rodney Crowell on his latest album, produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie. He has written about his difficult East Houston childhood before, and he revisits it more graphically than ever on ‘East Houston Blues’, a reflective and gripping contemplation of a very tough past which might have ended very badly. The song seems to be set in an alternative world in which he never got out of it:
I grew up hungry
And I grew up hard
Took the streets and alleys
For my own backyard
I got a breakin’-and-enter
On my list of crimes
Been before the judge
One too many times…
I’m a third-born child
My mother’s only son
Which means exactly nothing
Without a loaded gun
I don’t believe in love
This I guarantee
If there’s a God above
He’s got it in for me
This song opens the album, which is bookended with his recollections of his arrival in ‘Nashville ‘72’ and early friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark. He drops lots of names of his musician friends from that era, some of whom will be more familiar than others to the average listener. Susanna Clark’s recent death may perhaps have sparked off this nostalgic mood, and ‘Life Without Susanna’ addresses this sense of loss. While it is well written and clearly heartfelt, the rather histrionic vocals make it hard to listen to.
In another echo of times past, ex-wife Rosanne Cash joins Rodney on ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’, together with John Paul White, formerly half of Americana duo The Civil Wars. A rueful yet optimistic look at growing older partly inspired by Guy and Susanna, this is an excellent song which is being promoted as a single:
It’s like I’m sittin’ at a bus stop waitin’ for a train
Exactly how I got here is hard to explain
My heart’s in the right place,
what’s left of it I guess
My heart ain’t the problem,
It’s my mind that’s a total mess
With these rickety old legs and these watery eyes
It’s hard to believe that I could pass for anybody’s prize
And here’s what I know about
The gifts that God gave
You can’t take ’em with ya
When you go to the grave
The funky ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ is also about growing older, and no longer bothering about appearances or what others think.
An unexpected guest is Sheryl Crow, who duets with Rodney on ‘Tied To Ya’ which he wrote with Irish musician Michael McGlynn. This is a kind of love song with a pretty melody and rather vague spiritual but not religious lyrics. I much preferred the delicately understated pensive ‘Forgive Me Annabelle’, about a former love and his own past failings, set to a beautiful string arrangement. ‘Reckless’ is a song about dreaming about cheating on a true love, with another classical style arrangement.
‘Storm Warning’, a co-write with poet Mary Karr, with whom Crowell collaborated on his album Kin a few years ago, is an intense description of a tornado, but (while entirely appropriate for the song) it is a bit loud and cluttered for me to actually enjoy. In contrast, the mellow, poetic ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ is lovely.
I don’t think I would call this album country, and maybe not even Americana. But it is an excellent, mature piece of work.