Complicated Game
James McMurtry
(Complicated Game Records)

+Plus album of the year

If good reviews were currency Texas songwriter James McMurtry wouldn't - twelve records in - have to drive himself to gigs (where often one of his band members doubles as a soundman). But then we wouldn't have the surreal, foot-to-the-floor driver's rant How'm I Gonna Find You Now either - inspired by a rattling dashboard in McMurtry's truck. That automotive annoyance he spun into the rapid-fire hillbilly rap which is the closest he's got to a commercial record (even remixed by Tchad Blake) in a long time.

No, good reviews - like this one - rain down on McMurtry. Writer Stephen King calls him "the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation" and everyone from prof-critic Greil Marcus to current Americana wonder-kid Jason Isbell sings his praises. Hell, even Rolling Stone named Complicated Game the Best Country Album of 2015 You Probably Didn't Hear.

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Topping that chart would've appealed to McMurtry's glass-half-empty worldview.

But that grumpy, bemused exterior hides a generous, empathetic intelligence and a novelist's eye.

No-one could accuse McMurtry of being a sensitive singer-songwriter looking for an ad sync and sympathy.

When asked why such a lag (seven years) between albums he tells interviewers - "I didn't need to make a record because my club draw held up pretty good. Used to, we toured to promote record sales; now it's the other way around. We put out records, so you guys [journalists] will write about us."

That droll fatalism's in the songs too.

Songs that are set determinedly in today's America - and most of those who feature in Complicated Game find it a hard, unforgiving place.

Take the sweet country swing of She Loves Me, a deceptively straight-forward love song till you listen close.

Turns out this little love arrangement entails accepting his gal gets it on with a parking lot attendant when he's out of town. Sad, funny and probably true it's just one of twelve songs here that give voice to the ordinary man, trapped in modern life's complicated byways.

Sugar-coating things isn't the McMurtry way - either in song or life.

McMurtry has been consistent in his near three decade career - he inhabits a character, and weaves the narrative around them, he doesn't necessarily agree with them and autobiography is anathema.

"I don't have any interest in my life. I make stuff up--that's what I do."

From the disillusioned soldier who returns to the barren landscape of South Dakota, to the self-harmer of album closer Cutter (which wouldn't be out of place on Lou Reed's Blue Mask), to the small-town fishermen - who help an old-timer fish illegally in the album's finest track Carlisle's Haul - McMurtry's characters lead the song - there are no heroics, and the story's told in plain language.

there ain't much between the Pole and South Dakota
And barbed wire won't stop the wind
You won't get nothing here but broke and older
If I was you I might re-up again

South Dakota

He says he only really writes when it's time to turn in a record.

But You Got To Me is an exception on both points. In it the singer (clearly McMurtry) recalls attending the wedding of a former flame.

A song he says took twenty years to write.

The wedding party's raging yet, how the old and desperate misbehave

Limo smells like cocaine sweat, cheap cologne and aftershave

It's gotta be one of these row house doors

I knew the number long ago

I step out on the curb

tell the driver just go on and go.

You got to me.

Brought all this empty down on top of me.

I didn't know but we were not to be,

but I know a thing or two now.

Everyone knows McMurtry is a superb lyric writer but less celebrated is his way with a riff and melody. (He's a great guitarist too).

Album opener Copper Canteen is built on a simple descending chord progression - which perhaps mirrors the slow descending spiral of the life of it's narrator a near-retirement shop-owner, under pressure from the big box retailers out on the bypass, whose marriage - with all its ups and downs - seems the only constant in his life, although its opening lines suggest anything but marital bliss.

Honey don't you be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun

I'll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season's done

We've got one more weekend to go

And I'd sure like to kill one more doe

Another high-point, the affecting Long Island Sound with it's beery Irish lilt, paints a picture of a modest late-life contentment, a rarity in the McMurtry canon.

It doesn't seem long since we came up from Tulsa

Been here six years and I reckon we'll stay

The company's not bad as the companies go

They still got the health plan and they're raising my pay
Carlisle's Haul might just be the best thing he's written - possessing a wonderful sense of detail and time passing and a simmering disillusionment. Illegal fishing is the only way old Carlisle can make enough to make ends meet, and everyone pitches in, even the warden knows to look the other way

It's hard not to cry and cuss

This old world is just bigger than us

And all we got is pride and trust in our kind

Staring down that long steep slope

We gather round and we hold out hope

'Cause at the end of the rope there's a little more rope

Most times

Much has been made of the fact that novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) is his father, but - arguably - James is a sharper writer.

He's spoken of these characters " ...enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can't, yet."

And in McMurtry, and the songs on Complicated Game, they have found their finest chronicler.

Greg Fleming

Greg is an Auckland based writer and musician.
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