"I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us..."
So said Kurt Wagner, the band's front man, in the announcement for their new album, Mr. M. This kind of understatement -- and when you hear the record, you'll know it is understatement -- seems typical of the soft-spoken crooner, but it also says something of the album's unusual beginnings. Wagner turned to painting, and away from music, after the untimely death of long-time friend Vic Chestnutt in late 2009. Lambchop had backed Chesnutt up on 1998's The Salesman and Bernadette, and the musical connection between the players on what may be Chesnutt's best record is clear.
But music couldn't heal the loss, so Wagner took solace in visual art instead, until Mark Nevers -- producer and former full-time member of Lambchop -- talked him into a new record. Mr. M is a different sort of Lambchop record in a very paradoxical way. It is, without doubt, a studio creation -- the kind of intricate and carefully built that's more of a collage of sound than a product a band can up and recreate organically. And yet, the album sounds more intricately textured and heartfelt than any Lambchop record to date. The album is dedicated to Chesnutt, and it plays like equal parts celebration and mourning, but it gets at both in an oblique way. As the layers and strings grow and swell in seemingly borderless size around Wagner, so too do his narratives wander, leaving us to find our own meanings in the details.
"Don't know what the fuck they talk about," Wagner sings to open the record on "If Not I'll Just Die," presenting a curiously profane opening to an otherwise sublime record. It's also a perfect start, though. The album is about findin about finding hope and catharsis and beauty in everyday mystery. The song goes on to talk about grandfathers making noise in the kitchen, coffeemakers, all the stuff that fills up the day to day. That first line sheds all the frustration from mystery, from the unknown, and the rest of the record is cracked wide open.
That open space examines equally the past and the future. "2B2" has the same quotidian details -- Christmas lights left out too long, for instance -- that go ignored as Wagner worries over a long-distance relationship. On the sad isolation of "Kind Of," Wagner has little more than bare cupboards, the way the branches frame the moon, a sound outside the bedroom door. As the minutiae piles up, it doesn't drag things down into dark melancholy. Instead, bits of the everyday reveal themselves as more hopeful. They may remind us of past loss, but they also spark fond memories, inspire new ones.
While Wagner is the focus here -- his brittle croon sometimes sweet, sometimes frayed and broken, his rolling guitar playing both direct and intricate -- the music around him reflects both the wandering and the discovery of this record. "Gone Tomorrow," the album's best song, finds Wagner at his most contemplative, right down to strangely re-seeing things around him ("looks like water comes from somewhere else"), and the music follows suit. The song's string-laden country groove opens up into an instrumental crescendo that overwhelms and then overpowers Wagner's guitar to create something soaring and ethereal. "Mr. Met" shifts jarringly from lilting balladry to scuffling interludes, pulling you out of the dreamy gauze of the song, making you pay attention anew. The soul-infused "Gar" marks a perfect shift in tone, the instrumental track shadowing all of Wagner's lyrical concerns.
The album's concerns about yesterday and today are not merely thematic, but also sonic. The lilting strings may recall classic vocal jazz records, or even mid-'70s country, but they're also obscured by very modern fuzz and loops of sound. As tradition clashes with technology, Wagner explores the strange and futile new ways we store memory, he also returns to fundamental actions for catharsis. On "Nice Without Mercy," he mentions in one breath "taking pictures with our phones" and, in the next, "catching fish with just our hands." If the first action provides no comfort, the second sure seems to.
And it is in this tension -- the struggle to find hope and comfort quickly and the realization that you can't -- that Mr. M exists and shines. It's a deeply complex album, one that in the end identifies a particular bittersweet, everyday beauty without ever clarifying it. Wagner calls out to it, and calls us close to see it, but never gives it a name. It's the kind of record Vic Chesnutt would love -- thorny and exposed at the nerve, isolated yet always bridging back to something else, to a connection. Wagner thought Lambchop had one good record left, but it turns out he was wrong. Instead, Lambchop had its best one waiting for us.