Mose Allison: “The Way of the World”

Some things never change: Eighty-two years old and a dozen years after his retirement from studio recording, Mose Allison turns out to be every bit as wry, as cantankerous, and as whip-smart as ever, so much so that, on new album The Way of the World, he puts the young musicians working with him through their paces just to try to keep up with him. We have Joe Henry to thank for this one: He met Allison a couple of years ago, immediately realized that the singer and pianist’s story was far from over, and so launched a good old-fashioned letter-writing campaign to prod the man into the studio. The terminally cool Allison sounds like he’s at least partly humoring Henry here, but it hardly matters: He’s fully engaged here, sounding like he put down Henry’s letters, sat down at the keys, and pounded this one out in an hour.

Actually, it was recorded in five days in Henry’s basement studio, with his usual cast of studio hands on board to help, but that hardly matters: What’s important is that this one is a gift to anyone who hears it, a dynamite set that finds Allison in fighting form. Henry was right in thinking that Allison still has stories left to tell, and on The Way of the World, that story is that, well, some things never change– or at least that’s what Allison might have us believe. The album title suggests a kind of old-as-dirt attitude that people today operate in just about the same way they always have; Allison’s seen it all, yet his dry wit enlivens the twisted account of betrayal in “I Know You Didn’t Mean It,” or the knowing kiss-off of “Everybody Thinks You’re an Angel”– songs expressing sentiments that are older than the blues, but given a fresh twist of the knife here.

And all the while, Allison wails on his piano with elastic harmonies and more energy than pianists a quarter his age can muster; listen to him lead the charge through the instrumental “Crush,” a mischievous bop number that explodes with improvisational possibilities. This is a Mose Allison recording in the classic vein– compact and devoid of frills, but packing a lot of bang for the buck with not a single wasted second– yet as much as Allison savors making a record that rests on his incredible legacy, he offers sly hints that he’s equally zealous to expand upon it. Cue Henry and his studio guns, who bring whimsy and invention to everything they do. Greg Leisz adds mandola to a couple of tracks– not what you usually hear on a Mose album, but a subtle touch that adds gypsy flavor to Allison’s jazz workouts. Electric guitar keeps the title track on the bluesy tip, and a saxophone is enough to make “Crush” sound like a delirious Blue Note outtake while bringing a hint of loungey noir to a hysterical cover of Loudon Wainwright‘s “I’m Alright.”

The last song on the album is a duet with Allison’s daughter Amy, on a cover of an old WWII-era parlor tune; I’m not sure, but I think that might be a first for a Mose Allison record, which is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of this fine recording. Joe Henry was sure Allison had something left to say; turns out, it’s an update on a story he’s already told us before, but an update nevertheless– and through the sheer force of energy and invention, of wisdom and wit, Allison etches out another addition to his already great legacy, making The Way of the World a testament to a veteran who’s still in his prime.

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