Rodney Crowell: “Sex and Gasoline”
The promotional material accompanying Rodney Crowell’s latest album, Sex and Gasoline, suggests that the songs here have a loose thematic thrust– specifically, that they’re all sort of about women. Never mind that Sam Beam already did something like that on his Woman King record, and never mind that calling this an album about women is a bit like calling a Hank William record an album about drunks– just take note of the fact that Joe Henry produced this set and it should become evident that there’s a lot more complexity to this project than you might first realize. Henry seems to take it upon himself to choose recording endeavors that are more than meets the eye; his latest, a collaboration with Loudon Wainwright on a set of the singer/songwrter’s best-loved tunes, might initially seem like a glorified greatest hits album when in fact it’s so much more, and even Henry’s last album as a performer, Civilians, was unfairly tagged as a “political album” in the press material when in fact it was a rich and sophisticated set of interlocking metaphors, a complex and sweeping vision of a nation in decline and a probing journey into the heart of humanity itself.
All that by way of saying, yes, Rodney Crowell’s new album features a lot of songs about women, or sung from the perspective of a woman– heck, even one song in which Crowell says he wishes he could be a woman! But one gets the impression that this was a recurring motif that was unplanned, perhaps even undiscovered until the album was near completion. Because of course, there’s an awful lot more to it than just a set of songs about women; like Henry’s album, this collection addresses the beauty and tragedy of humanity both on a political and cultural scale as well as on a personal one, at times blurring the disctintion between the two. It’s an album about love and lust, sex and money, truth and greed, and clinging to virtue in a perilous age.
Not surprisingly, it’s also an exquisitely soulful and open-hearted collection. In fact, it’s something of a consolidation of the various strengths of Crowell’s other recent works, marrying the introspection and gentle wisdom of Fate’s Right Hand and The Houston Kid with the caustic, political anger of The Outsider, making for an album that could only have been made by a man who’s gained wisdom and understanding with age, but never totally let go of the restlessness and black humor that have always marked his music. And he’s in fine voice throughout, both vocally and lyrically, singing with greater nuance and control and writing with more wit and insight than the vast majority of his peers.
Naturally, it’s an excellent set of songs, alive and positively teeming with humor and compassion, insight and anger. The title track sets the tone for the whole set, a furious and devilishly funny lament for a culture that’s traded love for pure, superficial lust; Crowell performs it with a nasty, tongue-in-cheek snarl, but he’s smart enough to turn the gun on himself, as well, and never to sound too much like some angry old codger. “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design” is a similarly dark, funny bit of cultural and political diagnosis, but this is hardly a protest album, as Crowell turns both of these songs into sad comedies about the reality of human frailty and blindness, not unlike Henry himself so often does. And it’s not all righteous indignation, either– there are some sweetly tender moments in “Moving Work of Art,” a superb break-up song that highlights the themes of the album without straying too far from its familiar template, and the goofball humor of the joyful, suitably gospel-tinged finale, “Closer to Heaven.” And that’s to say nothing of the album’s best and most moving number, “I’ve Done Everything I Can,” a show-stopping duet with Henry where the two men engage in a warm, wistful, disarmingly candid dialogue about the trials and tribulations of fatherhood.
Of course, a set of songs as rich and eclectic as these lives or dies by the instincts and generosity of the musicians supporting them, so thank goodness Crowell chose to cut these tracks with Henry and his band, who prove versatile enough to make this a surprisingly varied and diverse listen, one that covers a lot more stylistic ground than many of Henry’s other projects. Yes, it’s the same band Henry brought in for the last two Loudon albums, as well as all of his other recordings from the past two years; every time he brings these musicians back together it’s worrisome that their limitations will start to show, but it certainly doesn’t happen here, as the performances model restraint and nuance, keeping the focus on the singer and the songs, while still providing enough variation in mood and tempo to highlight the natural eclecticism of Crowell’s writing. Witness how the propulsive percussion of Jay Bellerose turns “Sex and Gasoline” into a rocker that is both subtle and aggressive, how there’s just enough weepy pedal steel on “Truth Decay” to bring out the country flavor without overstepping into scmaltz, how the band segues so naturally from the soulful country stomp of “Funky and the Farm-boy” to the gentle folk of “Forty Winters.”
Indeed, so sophisticated and understated is this set, both in terms of writing and performance, that it’s easy to downplay just how much of an achievement it is. This is the work of veteran musicians spurring each other on to some of the richest, most varied and rewarding music they’ve ever made, an album that doesn’t flaunt its uniqueness but is one of a kind nevertheless for its volatile mix of humor and heart, craft and vitality; or, as the cover artwork suggests, it’s an album that’s classy without taking itself too seriously, an album that says as much in its heartfelt moments as it does in its moments of indignation and its moments of cheerfully dark humor. In other words, it’s the work of a superb craftsman and a restless artist, and it’s an album that only grows richer and more meaningful the more it’s played.