Jeff Bridges: “Jeff Bridges”
The first cut on Jeff Bridges, “What A Little Bit of Love Can Do,” could easily have been a hit for Bad Blake, the actor/singer’s character from Crazy Heart. I make a point to say– and very much to the album’s credit– that it is equally easy for me to hear the song as a long-lost country/rock radio staple, and that the album makes it all too easy to forget Crazy Heart— a solid movie that won Bridges an Oscar and ostensibly served as the launching point for this recording project– altogether. It works as an album, not just as a vanity project, and it is at once more personal and at times more peculiar than other albums of its ilk, but for the most part, it’s remarkable just because it is very, very good, across the board.
It is not, by the way, Jeff Bridges’ first album as a recording musician, and no, I’m not counting the Crazy Heart soundtrack; he cut an album more than a decade ago, filled with philosophical lyrics and long, rambling tunes arranged by Michael McDonald. That album, called Be Here Soon, might have been remembered as a curious showbusiness footnote, a record that proved Bridges’ varied creative interests. The new one proves his talent and his musical authenticity, and is something I have, in fact, found myself reaching to put on the stereo many times in recent weeks. I imagine its power will last.
It is strange, I grant, that the album arrives within a couple of months of Hugh Laurie’s own Let Them Talk; that both thespians are essentially taking on different kinds of American roots music, and that both chose to work with ace singer/songwriter producers (Joe Henry for Laurie, T-Bone Burnett for Bridges). In fact, they even employ some of the same musicians, most notably long-time Joe Henry drummer Jay Bellerose, whose percussive work on the Bridges album is especially rich and evocative. In other ways, though, the two projects couldn’t be more different. Laurie’s album is not about Laurie at all, and that’s its strength; it’s a valentine to New Orleans and to American blues music, the actor/singer meant to be a vessel, not the subject matter. Bridges’ album is more personal. Indeed, it’s no surprise that he chose to name it after himself; it feels intimate and introspective, a set of confessions where Laurie’s is a set of myths and tall tales. I erect this comparison not to pit one album against the other, but just to illustrate what a curious case Jeff Bridges really is– curious because it is, conceivably, an album about Jeff Bridges, yet it plays completely devoid of ego or self-absorption.
Indeed, my friend Andy Whitman described what is arguably the album’s centerpiece, a song by the late Stephen Bruton called “Nothing Yet,” as a sort of deathbed confessional, or a “stocktaking,” and that word describes me as rather apropos for the album as a whole. The whole record is colored by a sort of late-in-life introspection that a man of Bridges’ age (and level of grizzlement) has probably earned, though thankfully there is none of the mortality-courting, death fetishism that makes many similar albums such dour affairs. “Nothing Yet” may be a whispered confession of personal failings and a barely-heard admission of the spiritual world that exists beyond the senses, but it carries with it a sense of resolve– as though, even with a lifetime of coming short stretched out behind us, the moment at hand is pregnant with redemption, with second chances. It’s a ghostly song with a quietly soulful performance from Bridges, and it also happens to sound like an ace country/folk ballad, partly for the weepy steel guitar and partly for Roseanne Cash’s divine harmonies.
The whole album sounds quite good, actually, which is something of a relief; T-Bone jettisons the reverb-heavy insularity he brought to last year’s John Mellencamp (where his sonic approach really worked) as well as this year’s Steve Earle (where it really didn’t), and the sound here is direct and uncluttered; it works particularly well on the upbeat cuts, like the opener, written by and performed with Ryan Bingham. (That song, by the way, proves that Bridges is more than happy to crank out a couple of stellar, stand-along roots-rock singles, but the lyric’s glorification of love above all else is nicely in keeping with the inward gaze of the surrounding material.) Burnett gets wonderful work out of all his musicians, and I don’t just mean Bridges; the whole supporting cast is first-rate, and harmony vocals from Sam Phillips and especially Cash lift these songs into a whole other realm of sublimnity.
As for “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do,” it’s an instant classic, and there’s a nice book-end moment later in the album with the almost honky-tonk, Opry-ready number called “Maybe I Missed the Point,” but it’s to the credit of both Bridges and Burnett that they’re willing to let the album drift into some really unexpected places. “Falling Short” is the second song here, a pensive and mysterious number with evocative tom-work and cymbal splashes from Bellerose plus a spooky harmony from Phillips; it’s a moody and confessional piece penned by Bridges himself, and its artsy veneer actually works remarkably well. It is topped two songs later by “Tumbling Vine,” an art-rock ramble without a clear structure but with an appealingly Tom Waits-ian sense of show– audacious and among the best things here. Later in the album, “Slow Boat” and “Either Way” are both art-dramaged guitar-rock showcases, slow-burners with drama and confession pulsing through them, while “Blue Car” plays with roots-rock tropes and images without actually sounding much like a country song.
The whole thing ends with a brief, sparsely produced song called “The Quest”– maybe the purest country here, a cowboy song for singing around campfires, with a straightforwardly personal and philosophical lyric that seems pretty well in keeping with the kind of laid-back introspection I associate with Jeff Bridges. Like everything here, he sings it like he means it, and it’s presented here in a way that makes me eager to forget Bridges the Actor and simply enjoy these spirited (and, in a broad sense, spiritual) songs and lovely, addictive performances. This is, by any standard, a fine, fine record.