Lambchop

The shift is so subtle and unassuming, you may never notice it happens.
But 42 minutes into Lambchop’s fourteenth studio album—the disarming
but intimate confessional called This (is what I wanted to tell you)—
Kurt Wagner steps forward, his voice newly unadorned. With the AutoTune gild of recent Lambchop records momentarily leached away, his voice
is as open and honest as the acoustic guitar and lonesome harmonica that
traipse beneath it. The feelings practically pour between the cracks of
his stunning baritone, raw for the first time in years. “If I gave you a
hundred dollars to record just three words/I could make the perfect
song,” he sings, the vulnerability of both voice and verse becoming an
emotional revelation as he curls aspirationally around that final phrase.
The finale of This, “Flower” is a moment of hope wrought from a static
state of quiet hell, a little request for a vow of love before we all cry or
drink ourselves to death. This is what he wanted to tell you, plain and
simple and pure.
You can understand why Wagner needs a little cover during the first
seven songs of This. (By the way, it’s the fourteenth Lambchop album
because, like all the other tallest buildings in the world, Lambchop skips
No. 13.) In tone poems that link poignant snapshots of everyday scenes
with koan-like reflections about what it takes and means to stay alive in
these modern times, Wagner limns a world that seems to be falling apart.
During scene-framing opener “The New Isn’t So You Anymore,” he
sorts through the newspaper only to be disappointed in the news and its
delivery; days and debates get him in trouble he worries he cannot undo.
Wagner reckons with a reality of gentle but relentless senescence and
entropy as the drums simmer and pianos refract during “The Lasting Last
of You.” In a quivering falsetto over muted soul sparkle, he compromises
with the cold expectations and consistent letdown of our era for “The
December-ish You.”
Inside these gorgeous and haunted numbers, the seasons and the lights
and the days change, but the people remain the same. The album’s tiny
moment of genuine joy (“I’m in a Mexican restaurant bar/Watching
surfing/And it’s amazing,” he sings with an audible grin) emerges from a
web of warped synthesizer signals and discordant horns, only to slip right
back in. This (is what I wanted to tell you) fully documents the feeling of
watching things fall apart, helplessly wondering where it all went wrong.
Not so long ago, Lambchop had a famously sprawling line-up, toting a
dozen or so members around the world and into the studio to document
elliptical country-soul mutations. But in recent years, the band has
become a more personal vehicle for Wagner. Anchored by him and
framed by bassist Matt Swanson and Wagner’s incorrigibly grinning foil,
the pianist Tony Crow, the Lambchop of this decade has become more
pliant and adaptable, opening itself to unexpected collaborators that give
Wagner’s thoughts and feelings the shape they need for each new album.
That was the idea for 2012’s engrossing Mr. M and 2016’s staggering
(and tragically timed, we should say here) FLOTUS, and it remains the
approach for This (is what I wanted to tell you).
In the summer of 2017, Wagner left Nashville and crossed the Blue Ridge
Mountains into North Carolina, where he attended the 50th birthday
party of longtime friend and Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan, who
has released Lambchop records for a quarter-century now. That night,
Wagner re-met Mac’s younger brother, Matt McCaughan, who has spent
the last decade drumming for the likes of Bon Iver and Hiss Golden
Messenger. McCaughan told Wagner he had been adventuring inside the
world of rack-mounted analogue synthesizers and asked if Wagner might
send some vocals to which he could compose.
They became instant musical pen pals, with Wagner sending him
a cappella takes of new song ideas and McCaughan dispatching longform synthesizer pieces for inspiration. McCaughan eventually headed to
Nashville, where, together, they put a band behind the songs, using pedal
steel and piano and the harmonica of Nashville legend Charlie McCoy
to color in the spaces of these black-and-white sketches. That unexpected
human connection—that is, rekindling an old friendship to make music
in a way you never imagined—is a happy answer to the worries of This
(is what I wanted to tell you), an album whose honesty pulls on your heart
with the weight of absolute empathy. Stunning, beautiful, and surprising,
This (is what I wanted to tell you) is a record you just need to hear.

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