My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Jeffrey Vanston

Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Life Is Messy’

Life Is Messy arrived in May 1992 and served as a correction of course following the disappointing commercial success of Keys of the Highway. It marked his first recording for Columbia without Tony Brown at the helm and came as his marriage to Rosanne Cash was ending in divorce.

With his personal life in turmoil, Crowell crafted a brooding album of heartbreak ballads that found him coming to terms with the end of his marriage all the while looking into the better future that lie ahead. While not his most energetic work, the album rose to #30 and spun two top-ten singles.

One of the project’s rare up-tempo numbers, the solo penned “Lovin’ All Night” proceeded the project and peaked at #10. Led by distinctive guitar and drum work, it marked one of Crowell’s more memorable singles of the 1990s (Patty Loveless covered it on 2003’s On Your Way Home). The airy and somewhat pop flavored “What Kind of Love,” co-written by Crowell with Will Jennings and Roy Orbison (who wrote the melody shortly before he died), peaked art #11 that summer. A third single, “Let’s Make Trouble” failed to chart.

The rest of Life is Messy feels more like a personal art project than a commercial country album and showed the quickly growing divide between Crowell and mainstream country radio. But as a singer/songwriter, Crowell proves worth by creating some of his deepest and most heartfelt compositions to date.

The best of the most personal songs, “Alone but not Alone” opens with a beautiful reflection on a life peppered with confusion:

I’m stretched out like a canvas ‘neath a blue and endless sky

Staring up through cattle bones as cotton balls roll by

I swear I see a rose up there so beautiful and white

If I so much as blink an eye I could lose her in this light

Out here in this deserted land the future looks so vast

Like every little grain of sand and every blade of grass

Other memorable heartbreak tunes include the beat driven “I Hardly Know Myself,” which Crowell co-wrote with Cash, the beautifully meditative  (and my personal favorite) “Life Is Messy,” which builds with his stunning vocal, and the Orbison-like “Maybe Next Time.” Even the rockers – “It’s Not for Me To Judge,” “It Doesn’t Get Better Than This” (which Crowell co-write with John Leventhal, the man Cash would marry in 1995), and “The Answer is Yes” all come with their own brooding bitterness.

As far as heartbreak albums go, Life is Messy is one of the best and lyrically close to brilliant. The main problem lies within the production – producers Bobby Colomby, Larry Klein, and Jeffrey Vanston (along with Leventhal and Crowell) seem confused as to the album’s classification – is it country? Adult Contemporary? Or singer/songwriter? Without a focus, Life Is Messy comes off as a hodgepodge of styles without a chance of maximum success in any one genre. But as a collection of songs, it’s stellar.

Grade: B+