James McMurtry Is More Expressive Than Ever On 'Complicated Game'

Mar 9, 2015
Originally published on March 10, 2015 1:33 pm

Complicated Game is James McMurtry's first new studio album since 2008. The Texas-born singer-songwriter, now based in Austin, is known for songs with strong narratives and a blend of country, blues, and rock melodies. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker says Complicated Game demonstrates a new range of style and subject matter for McMurtry.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "Complicated Game," James McMurtry's first new studio album since 2008. The Texas-born singer-songwriter, who is now based in Austin, is known for songs with strong narratives and a blend of country blues and rock melodies. Ken says "Complicated Game" demonstrates a new range of style and subject matter for McMurtry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT A PLACE")

JAMES MCMURTRY: (Singing) The skies are taller in Louisiana. The skies are wider in New Mexico. The skies in Texas kind of split the difference. They don't suit me no matter where I go. I ain't got a place. I ain't got a place in this world. I ain't got a place. I ain't got a place in this world, I know.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Like a lot of singer-songwriters, James McMurtry likes to position himself as an outsider. That's what the song that opens this review, "Ain't Got A Place," suggests - a restlessness that finds home ground in songwriting and performing. There is, however, a certain kinship McMurtry has consistently expressed throughout his career, an identification with people who work with their hands - who spend their free time hunting and fishing. It's a kinship described vividly in the song that begins the album, "Copper Canteen."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPPER CANTEEN")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) Honey, don't you be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun. I'll wash the blood off the tailgate when this season's done. We've got one more weekend to go, and I'd like to kill one more doe. So I'll shovel the sidewalk again 'cause you're still in a stew.

TUCKER: That's the tale of a marriage fraught with tension. It's a tension alleviated mostly by the narrator periodically leaving the house to shovel snow or shoot one more deer before either hunting season or the marriage ends. Like quite a few of McMurtry's characters, this man feels at once hemmed in and guilty that he's not doing better for himself and for the people who depend upon him. Like the album title says, it's a complicated game.

The most ambitious song on this album is "Carlisle's Haul." It's a detailed portrait of a commercial fisherman that opens out into a more universal theme of hopelessness held at bay by the loyalty people feel to each other even in bad times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARLISLE'S HAUL")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) Ol' Carlisle needs some money. He's running a seine out off the point. We'll all go help him though commercial season's closed. We might all wind up in the joint.

TUCKER: Over the course of a few decades, McMurtry has frequently seemed to pride himself on singing in a monotone, the better to make you focus on his words. His vocals throughout "Complicated Game," however, are more expressive than on any other previous album. You can hear this most strikingly on two songs. The first is a fine piece of blues with a boogie beat called "Forgotten Coast" with some slide guitar playing by Derek Trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGOTTEN COAST")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) Down the highway, south I'll go. We were hitched (unintelligible) Port St. Joe. I'm going to walk the beach with a pirate's ghost. And we'll haunt that old forgotten coast. I'm going to trade my car and change my name, put Wesson oil in my bar and chain. I'm going to fix the roadkill - black bear roast - and get fat on that forgotten coast.

TUCKER: His second song, in which McMurtry challenges himself to push past his usual eloquent drawl, is "How'm I Going To Find You Now?" In a couple of places, I've read McMurtry's vocal on this song referred to as a rap, or almost rap or rap singing. But with its generous outpouring of words assembled to mimic the rhythm of a rapid car ride, "How'm I Going To Find You Now?" has as much to do with Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and a hundred old-talking blues songs as it does hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW'M I GOING TO FIND YOU NOW?")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) I got a cup of black coffee so I don't get lazy. I got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy. And if I hit it with my fist, it'll quit for a little while. Going to have to stop and take a piss in another mile. Headed into town, going to miss you at the mercantile. Take you to the Sonic, get you grinning like a crocodile. I got a hole in the floorboard...

TUCKER: "Complicated Game" is a really satisfying collection. For a fellow known as a wordsmith, the album also brings welcome attention to McMurtry's guitar playing, a talent that usually gets greater exposure when you see him live. One of the challenges for a musician who builds his songs around telling stories is to keep those stories interesting after you've listened to them four or five times or more. I'm here to tell you this music holds up.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed James McMurtry's new album "Complicated Game." Tomorrow on our show, some advice on how to cook tasty vegetarian dishes, advice intended for meat eaters as well as vegetarians. We'll talk with Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster of "America's Test Kitchen" about their new vegetarian cookbook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.