I’ve been doing this for a while, always with the same basic notion that I am sharing through songs – secretly, intimately – my ideas with my friends and loved ones.
Kurt Wagner, November 2011
It starts with some casual swearing yet the last word is ‘love’. It began when singer-songwriter-guitarist Kurt Wagner turned away from music and picked up his brushes to paint his way out of a funk that followed the premature death of friend Vic Chesnutt, who the band backed on 1998’s The Salesman and Bernadette. And though the sprawling multi-headed quiet juggernaut that is Lambchop most often treasures performance over artifice, their eleventh album is very much a studio creation.
Mr M began in a painter’s studio. Wagner explains: “As I worked, I was approached by Mark Nevers (former full time band member & producer for the likes of Andrew Bird and Will Oldham) with the idea of making another Lambchop record. He had a concept of a sound and a method that worked with the tone of my writing. His idea was a kind of ‘psycha-Sinatra’ sound, one that involved the arranging of strings and other sounds in a more open and yet complex way. It was a studio creation, not a type of recording based on band performance, and this was a radical approach for us. I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us, and this time I was going to do things as directly and true to my desires as possible.”
The resulting album was recorded at Nevers’s Nashville Beech House studio cum bungalow and is dedicated to Chesnutt. Working with the usual core of musicians- Scott Martin (drums), Matt Swanson (bass), Ryan Norris (guitar, organ), Tony Crow (piano), William Tyler (guitar) and guests include original co-founder Jonathan Marx, the delightful Cortney Tidwell (who shared vocals on 2010’s KORT project) and fiddler Billy Contreras (who has worked with all from Charlie Louvin to Laura Cantrell) - and with spectacular string arrangements shared between Peter Stopschinski and Mason Neely, it stretches out sonically as promised. (Incidentally the paintings, thickly layered black and white portraits forming a series called Beautillion Millitaire 2000, feature on the album sleeve and throughout the full artwork).
The amazing extended coda of ‘Gone Tomorrow’ lives up to Nevers’s original concept, deep and touching and genuinely unclassifiable. ‘The Good Life (Is Wasted)’ is a rare attempt by Wagner at a straightforward country song, inspired by trawling through YouTube clips of the Louvin Brothers after the death of Charlie Louvin, a Nashville fixture and another of Nevers’s clients. Even such simplicity comes with a few curveballs- Wagner alternatively calls it ‘The Good (Life Is Wasted)’ and the occasional punctuating powerchords are swathed in whooshing flange that might have graced an eighties pop-goth single.
So normal for Lambchop then, wild juxtapositions and lush arrangements. But there is heart in this music. “We were going to make the record Marky and I wanted to make, the way we saw fit, taking as long as it took. I was, in essence, ‘going for broke’, because I was broken and saw this as a last chance to get myself right. This time it was personal.” And Kurt Wagner’s concept of the personal resonates.
From its opening line- “Took the Christmas lights off the front porch, it felt like February 31st”- ‘2B2’ deals with the strangeness of the commonplace, and as we age that includes the death of a friend. When he double tracks the line ‘It was good to talk to you while we’re cooking, sounds like we’re making the same thing’, it adds a touch of wonder to this reassuring everyday occurrence.
‘Mr Met’ is the real title track, though as mediocre baseball team the New York Mets have a mascot with that name, the album title was changed to avoid legal complications. ‘Met’ here isn’t a sports or even an urban reference, but the past participle of ‘to meet’. With its long, purely classical string introduction and the eerie backing vocals from Cortney Tidwell, this stately, deliberate song, in Wagner’s words ‘a straightforward recounting of my feelings of love and loss’, stands out.
The gentle heartbreaker ‘Nice Without Mercy’, its words originally a caption to an artist friend’s photograph until their secondary relevance was noted, specifically evokes Chesnutt’s rural funeral. When Wagner’s voice catches on the words ‘Little Jimmy Dickens’, an occasional nickname he applied to his friend, the effect is way beyond affectation. He makes no great claims for his grief, accepting that loved ones are regularly lost. But acceptance doesn’t remove the sadness. “This is not an elegy or tribute to someone who was a friend and mentor. I’ve done that already, and it took its toll” he says.
So this is not simply a memorial record. The lovely, wordless ‘Gar’, its title referring either to a bottom feeding fish or a scar in woodgrain, is appropriately hard to pin down. ‘Betty’s Overture’, the other instrumental, is dedicated to a friendly promoter who of late provided a low key venue for Lambchop to develop this work. It sounds like a Nashville take on a spy movie theme. The friend is no longer employed at said venue.
‘Buttons’ faces up to the writer’s predilection for creating entirely imagined life stories for acquaintances and realising that the process works both ways. The lesson is that even imagined characters can change, or maybe judge not lest ye be judged. The Bacharach-quoting ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’ simply describes the chaos around him as a houseful of family conspires to frustrate Wagner’s attempts to compose. Again Wagner’s voice is doubled-up on the concluding ‘Never My Love’, giving him the confidence to use a four-letter word that has never previously appeared in his work.
Yet no Lambchop record has ever been lacking in love, and Mr M is no exception. “This is a record of, and about, love and the healing, binding force that it represents. It’s the thing that becomes, more and more, the only thing worth living for as we move on through these years together, not alone.”