Album Review: Lambchop – Mr. M

[Merge; 2012]

When Aristotle defined the Good Life, he posited that to achieve it is to lead a life dedicated to self-education, contemplation, and reason. Plato before him recalled the wisdom of his own departed mentor, Socrates, in writing that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” One must learn to contemplate one’s own life, and be able to acquire knowledge and exercise reason in order to live the Good Life. Yet on Mr. M, the eleventh album proper from the Nashville collective, Kurt Wagner seems to have grown weary of contemplation, though the lyrics of the record are chock full of it. He had put down his guitar and picked up paintbrushes following the untimely death of friend and fellow singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt in 2009, until he was approached by producer and former Lambchop member Mark Nevers with an idea for a self-described “Psycho-Sinatra” sound. “I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us,” Wagner said, “and this time I was going to do things as directly and true to my desires as possible.” The result is Mr. M, a gorgeous, sultry, and evocative record which proves to be the most satisfying departure yet from Lambchop’s usual alternative country trappings.

Opener “If Not I’ll Just Die” wastes no time in explaining exactly what Nevers means by a “Psycho-Sinatra” sound. Strings sigh and then swell, before eventually passing the spotlight via soft drumroll to an assured lounge piano groove and Wagner’s subdued, silken baritone opening the lyric sheet with a blunt “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about,” his immaculate diction breathing life into even the most banal details (“Grandpa’s coughing in the kitchen,” “How do you get the cups down from up there?”). He even throws in a bit of wry self-reference, remarking that “the strings sound good / maybe add some flutes,” and later suggesting “harps and electric guitars.” Soon we find all of these elements coming together on the latter half of early album highlight “Gone Tomorrow,” a psych-folk breakdown that serves as the conclusion to a juicy bit of alt-country soul. The strings and flutes make a repeat appearance in the following track, “Mr. Met,” which, with its lilting violin hook, is one of the most affecting songs Lambchop has recorded.

The second half of the album flows seamlessly, both a credit to its construction and discredit to its subtlety. Closer “Never My Love” is a soft-spoken finger-picked guitar ballad backed by strings and vocal harmony that wraps up the proceedings on a delightfully warm note, and the instrumentals “Gar” and “Betty’s Overture” are both such pleasant numbers that the absence of Wagner’s voice goes unnoticed. However, on “Nice Without Mercy” and “Buttons,” the two numbers that open the second act on a slow note, the presence of Wagner’s voice can go almost unnoticed as well. It’s easy to miss such brilliant lines as “The sky opens up like candy / and the wind don’t know my name,” and “Maybe find a job it won’t take a genius not to do.” The second act could perhaps have been better arranged to hold the interest of potential new listeners, yet it’s clear that the ordering is not without its purpose.

As mentioned before, this album was to be “as true to [Wagner’s] desires as possible,” and no track makes this more apparent than “The Good Life (Is Wasted).” “I’m not the kind of man to live comfortably,” he confesses in the song’s opening line, “Just give it some time and you’ll see.” The introspection comes to a head when Wagner declares “I’m just as guilty as guilty can be.” For the narrator of the song, it could be said that the life of contemplation and examination advocated by Aristotle and Plato is no more worth living, and perhaps even less so, than a life without, giving rise to the final conclusion that “The Good Life is wasted on me.” From a man who had intended to hang up his guitar for good three years ago, this comes across in this way as a particularly affecting statement.

Mr. M’s sound is a masterful synthesis between the alt-country leanings of such albums as Damaged and Oh (Ohio) and the lush experimentation of Is a Woman. It manages to sound familiar while sounding entirely new, all the while making it clear that this is a sound only Lambchop could create. Though Wagner may not be thrilled by an Aristotelian Good Life wrought with reexamination, it is this same examination and contemplation that has produced the remarkable growth and subsequent mutation of Lambchop’s sound. It is only by looking back at one’s sound and noting what one wants to do differently that an artist’s sound can evolve. Kurt Wagner knew Lambchop had one more good record in them; here’s to hoping there could be a second or third.