Tag Archives: James McMurtry

Complicated Game is James McMurtry’s Best

This is also McMurtry's best album cover

This is also McMurtry’s best album cover

 

James McMurtry, singer-songwriter extraordinaire and author of this site’s name, has been more or less writing the same two or three songs about the same characters for 25 years. On his newest album, the best of his career, he seems to have finally come to terms with this, doubling down on his portrayal of that restless middle-aged westerner wondering where it all went and putting aside everything else. The result is stunning.

Complicated Game, McMurtry’s first studio album in seven years, delivers what McMurtry listeners expect: fantastic wordplay, vivid depictions of country life that put contemporary spins on old country and rock troupes, laugh out loud lines (“I’m washing down my blood pressure pill with a red bull”), and that voice of restrained fury that makes every soft line feel like a strained neck muscle. But what’s different here is McMurtry’s focus on the one theme that informs his best songs: life slipping away.

On this album he relentlessly attacks you with the uncertainty of middle age, the idea that youth and life just sort of gave an Irish goodbye at some point, the fear that some unifying culture has dissolved with no replacement and the burden of unrelenting compromise that hangs over all of his characters. Where once McMurtry seemed to offer solutions in various forms: flight, anger (especially political anger), depression, violence, love, he now he seems to be saying that the fleeting feeling of helplessness we feel as our lives are constructed by someone else IS life. This affords him more opportunity to do what he does better than any song-writer on the planet: survey scenes of barely contemporary America and report back in beautiful couplets.

There’s equal measure solace and despair as it all slips away, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. Nothing is easy, there are no shortcuts: even the most radio friendly song on the album, the finger-snapping, sweetly picked “She Loves Me” is about a man who is sure (or is he?) that his lover will leave the man he’s given her permission to sleep with when he does in fact return from an unspecified absence. (“He’s a parking lot attendant at a fancy restaurant/He rides his brother’s Harley, and he gives her what she wants/He knows his days are numbered, as far as she’s concerned/She’ll vote him off the island the minute I return/ Because she loves me”) Even pure love is a trade-off, a negotiation (“It was part of our agreement/I signed off on the deal/I must admit I never saw it happening for real/because she loves me”).

Lyrically, McMurtry has populated this album with about seven perfectly written songs (most of his albums give you two or three) and it’s hard not to think this is in some way related to the fact that he has unplugged the band and put away all the bells and whistles of the studio. The sound is stripped down, although to imply that McMurtry has simply made some sort of folk album would be incorrect. There’s plenty of rhythms, but there is no sign of the excess or that extra instrument too many that has resulted in a few missteps on the last couple of albums. Everything is tighter here, more live sounding, and it feels like McMurtry is more sure of himself, a little more self-aware about what he does well. And what he does very best are those long, meandering narratives that are tied to a specific time and place, that in spite of having a very clear, beginning middle, and end, just sort of end up back where they started.

“South Dakota” starts off with a soldier getting told his tour in the Middle East is up, flying into Stuttgart, then home. Nowhere here is there any political statement one way or another, it’s just a kid coming home – happily – to South Dakota after a job is completed. He meets up with his brothers (“we got way deep in our cups”) and the chorus is his brother asking him what he’s going to do next, while saying maybe he should think about going back. (“There ain’t much between the pole and South Dakota/ And barb wire won’t stop the wind/ you won’t get much here but drunk and older/ you might as well re-up again”). Nothing is resolved. “Long Island Sound” starts off with a pretty great country verse about the difference between southern states, before McMurtry breaks a temporary fourth wall and says that he “wrote that verse for the kids, but I never did sing it/ I filed it way and forgot it in time/ My old guitar sits in the back bedroom closet/ Next to the shotgun I got when I was nine” which is a pretty incredible description of how far ago things like singing cowboys seem, before he talks about having to deal with traffic on the Cross Island Parkway.

It only gets better from there, but it really is the heart of the album, the idea that things have slipped away and become domesticated (rarely does he journey as far East as NYC), but there’s no use being angry about it. The chorus is about drinking and having another round. It’s about enjoying life as it fades away.

But of course, McMurtry would never let us off easy and just end the album there. The album ends not on “Long Island Sound” but the next song, “Cutter.” It’s about somebody cutting himself in order to deal with, well, everything.

There are many ways to deal. I choose listening to James McMurtry.

 

Here are the lyrics to “Long Island Sound,” just because.

 

New Mexico’s lost on the back streets of Austin

Carolina keeps all her thoughts to herself

Tennessee’s tight, and he will not stop talking

Somebody shush him, before I have to myself

 

Wrote that verse for the kids

But I never did sing it

I filed it away and forgot it in time

My old guitar sits in the back bedroom closet

Next to the shotgun I got when I was nine

 

If I had any sense I’d be way across the Whitestone

I might as well sit here awhile for I start

Because when the 5:30 rush hits the cross island parkway

It’s not for the squeamish or the gentle of heart

 

I’d be stuck on the bridge in the right lane at sunset

Watching the boats with their snowy white sails

Watching the sun sinking over the projects

Laundry hung out off the balcony rails

 

And where are you now my long secret love?

Where have you gone in your glamorous life?

Where are you now as the moon comes arising?

Are you somebody’s love, are you somebody’s wife?

 

These are the best days, these are the best days

You all put your money away, I got the round

Here’s to all you strangers

The Mets and the Rangers

Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound

 

I don’t know what goes on in those crumbling brick buildings

There on the same planet, in a whole ‘nother world

I got a bay boat and a 401k

Two cars in the driveway, two boys and a girl

 

It doesn’t seem that long since we came up from Tulsa

Been here six years and I reckon we’ll stay

The company’s not bad as far as companies go

I still got the health plan and they’re raising my pay

 

And the kids all play soccer like nobody’s business

 My grandmother says we’re just letting them fall though

They don’t go to church, and we’re not gonna make ‘em

They all drop their R’s like the islanders do

 

These are the best days, these are the best days

You all put your money away, I got the round

Here’s to all you strangers

The Mets and the Rangers

Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound

 

I remember her singing from that dusty old hymnal

Smelled like tobacco from granddaddy’s pipe

That old rugged cross ‘till she shook down the shingles

You never heard such a noise in your life

 

I had a tire run low so I dug through the glovebox

I needed the manual to locate the jack

Found a couple old picks and .20 gauge shot shell

Left from a duck hunt a couple years back

 

Oh. My. God. Brilliant.

 

These are the best days, these are the best days

You all put your money away, I got the round

Here’s to all you strangers

The Mets and the Rangers

Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound

 

 

New Mexico’s lost on the back streets of Austin

Carolina keeps all her thoughts to herself

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Hast thou considered the Cuttlefish?

 

I traveled to Boston this weekend, where I learned some things.

1) There is a point where snow can cross a categorical line from “precipitation” into “the physical manifestation of Gaia’s desire to rid herself of the human infestation.” That line has been crossed in Boston.

2) If you bring a bottle of whiskey with you to a cool restaurant, and hand it to the waitress and say “this is for the kitchen” you will get all sorts of delicious food sent to you for free. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this before. Why was I even watching Anthony Bourdain this whole time if not for tips like that?

3) There are things called cuttlefish, and they are the most amazing creatures on the planet. I stared at one for twenty minutes at the Boston Aquarium. We communed. The video you see here is a fantastic explanation of just how awesome the Cuttlefish is, and why it would absolutely be necessary to kill all of them if they were the size of, say, a dolphin. And why we wouldn’t be able to kill them if they were the size of a killer whale. Also, there would be no killer whales.

Also, James McMurty’s new album, Complicated Game is out today. Celebrate. He is truly the cuttlefish of singer songwriters. A review will be up soon.

 

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None of us are from here, we just live here: Happy Fourth

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It’s the Fourth of July and I’m sitting on an early morning train that is passing through sunny New England hamlets and those verdant tunnels between them and I’m struck by the balls it took to carve those towns out of the wilderness. I’m also wondering whether we still have those collective balls, or if the comforts of the age have shrunken them like Maine ocean water.

But then I listened to James McMurtry’s “I’m Not From Here” and I think we might actually be just fine.

All the grim realities of native genocide and the slave trade aside (and I know putting those things aside is a real white guy thing to do, but bear with me), what makes America unique is the fact that we are all descended from a massive genetic experiment that rewarded risk-taking and survival. My Mom’s ancestors came over on some boat shortly after the Mayflower, which means they were fucking crazy. You know how long that trip was? How bad did England have to be?

They,  like all the immigrants that followed them, had to have had a crazy sense of adventure and a belief in themselves and their ability to mold their future, otherwise they would have never even  tried to make it here. And that’s still true today, whether it’s people sneaking across the Mexican border, African immigrants working for minimum wage, Indian doctors, or Chinese engineers. These people are not timid, and do not accept the status quo they were born into. They roll the dice. That is why we need them.

(Quick aside: slavery brought people here unwillingly, but those who survived the unimaginable middle passage and had children were survivors through and through, and must have had an unbelievable resiliency. So although their journey here was not by choice they enriched the tough, adventuring aspects of the gene pool as well.)

We were a people from somewhere else, and we were on a mission to create a new world according to our desires and our hopes. Many horrible things have been done in the name of that mission but there are some beautiful things as well. But what makes us unique is not the result of our attempts at creating new society, but the basis for those attempts. We are descended from survivors, risk-takers, adventurers, and yes, crazy religious fanatics.  There were not a few idealists pushing for change. The whole society desired something new.

It is in this light that I present James McMurtry’s “I’m Not From Here” on the Fourth of July. In 2009, Ron Rosenbaum proposed on Slate.com that McMurtry’s “Choctow Bingo” should be the new national anthem, and while “Choctow Bingo” is a masterpiece of musical storytelling, it’s clear-eyed survey of the rural middle and lower classes isn’t appropriate for an anthem. An anthem should be about our best qualities, it should inspire us to be better. But it also shouldn’t be overly idealistic, sentimental, or hyperbolic.

“I’m Not From Here” reminds us of what is best about America, which is the drive toward a brighter future, a better spot to stop the wagons over the next ridge. McMurtry might be the best song writer alive not named Dylan or Cohen, and it’s a quote from his “Live in Aught Three” album that gives this website its name. He has written blistering protest songs and realist depictions of the heartland that are some of the best social commentary in any artistic field. In “I’m Not From Here” he celebrates the drive of any people (although it’s hard not to see these people as particularly American) to leave a world behind and go find another one. It’s universal and about the past, but it’s also about the present, about people who see farmland turned into parking lots and decide to move on. It’s about the locals who have “long since moved away.” It’s also about the nature of stagnation, that some people move to the next place, and then can’t really understand why other people are moving on again. It’s a celebration of people who create their own destinies by packing up and going. But it’s an ambivalent celebration at best, since he understands and acknowledges that the drive itself is the thing that is followed, that the end result doesn’t necessarily matter. He seems to wonder if the point is lost in this confusion of means and ends, of this drive that might not really have a useful function anymore in a settled country.

But isn’t that what we are as a people? Totally confused about whether freedom, wealth, and equality are means or ends? Totally confused about whether traveling, the road, and wandering is the point in and of itself,or whether, as McMurtry sings we are “off to some bright future somewhere”?

I don’t know whether my restlessness and constant motion is the means or the end.  It’s hard to tell. It’s tough when it’s bred into you, into all of us.

Here are the Lyrics to “I’m Not From Here:”

I’m not from here, I just live here

Grew up somewhere far away

Came here thinking I’d never stay long,

That I’d be going back soon someday

Been a few years since I got here

Seen em come and I seen em go

Crowds assemble, they hang out awhile

Then they melt away like an early snow

On to some bright future somewhere

Down the road to points unknown

Sending post cards when they get there

Wherever it is they think they’ll go

I’m not from here, I just live here

Can’t see that it matters much

I read the papers, I watch the nightly news

Who’s to say that I’m out of touch?

Been a few years. Yeah right

Nobody’s from here, Most of just live here

Locals long since moved away

So they played out farms for parking lots,

Went off looking for a better way

On to some bright future somewhere

Better times on down the road

Wonder if they ever got there?

Wherever it was they thought they’d go

I’m not from here

But people tell me

It’s not like it used to be

They say I shoulda been here

Back about ten years

Before it got ruined by folks like me

We can’t help it

We just keep moving

Been that way since long ago

Since the stone age

Chasing the great herds

We mostly go where we have to go

On to some bright future somewhere

Down the road to points unknown

Sending post cards when we get there

Wherever it is we think we’ll go

I’m not from here, I just live here

I’m not from here, I just live here

I’m not from here, I just live here

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