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Mr. M (2012)

Mr. M: A Collection
by Jonathan Marx

It’s been nearly two decades since Lambchop released its first album, at the time pronouncing itself “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band.” Provocative it may have been, but the description made sense: at the heart of all that ruckus was a band at once defying and embracing the musical legacy of its hometown. Since then, Lambchop has evolved into an accomplished ensemble, adding palpable depth and substance to singer-songwriter-guitarist Kurt Wagner’s songs — and the band sounds as commanding as ever on its 11th album, Mr. M, a collection of meditations on love and loss and the detritus of everyday existence.

Even so, something of that playful boast from long ago remains at the heart of everything the group has done since then. Lambchop may not sound in any conventional way like a country band (even the steel guitar, once prominent, is long gone from the band’s lineup), and yet the essential spirit of country music — the sound of someone just trying to make sense of life’s little ups and downs — remains present in its music.

Long before Lambchop, Wagner was a visual artist, and the release of Mr. M coincides with his recent return to painting. The 11 images on the album packaging were taken from his recent series Beautillion Militaire 2000, and they perfectly embody Wagner’s visual aesthetic, in which he uses heavy layers of black and white oil paint to re-create scenes from newspaper clippings and old photographs. With their dense, rippling textures and subtle distortions of subject matter, these paintings offer a visual analogue to Kurt’s songs: Both are grounded firmly in the mundane, but the presentation is stark and arresting, the significance of the details he chooses to share elusive yet ripe with meaning. Consider the closing lines of “2b2” from Mr. M, in which the narrator is standing in the kitchen, talking on the phone to a friend:

It was good to talk to you while we’re cooking
Sounds like we’re making the same thing
One man cooks with powder
The other cooks with stones

 As on past Lambchop records, many of the songs on Mr. M are framed with lush strings, and there’s a restrained undercurrent of distortion and discord. The core of the music remains the cyclical picking of Wagner’s guitar and the soft, warm croaking of his voice. The songs are spacious, even dreamy, as on the Countrypolitan instrumental “Gar,” while the lyrics and titles are rich with allusions, some of them obvious, others seemingly unknowable.

Mr. M is dedicated to the late musician Vic Chesnutt, a friend, fan and collaborator, and a prodigiously gifted musician in his own right. Chesnutt’s influence looms large in Lambchop’s music: in particular, his way with words, and his uncanny ability to wrap them in music that says even more than the lyrics alone can. It makes sense, then, that a mood of loss would hang heavily over these songs.

In the most arresting moments on Mr. M, Wagner appears to be reckoning with forces beyond his control. “And the sky it opens up like candy / And the wind it still don’t know my name,” he sings in “Nice Without Mercy.” For all the apparent existential dread of those lines, though, Wagner’s take on the world remains fundamentally hopeful: He transforms “Kind Of” into “kinder.” He senses better days ahead for the prickish protagonist of “Buttons.” And he opens the album by declaring, “what the fuck,” but he closes it with a simple, sweet utterance: “Love.”