An Honest, Accomplished Reflection
Rodney Crowell has been making music for about fifty years, and if his revelations on his latest record Close Ties are any indication, he’s done a lot of living during that time.
Released on New Wave Records, Close Ties comes across as a collection of Crowell’s life stories as songs, the kind steeped in memories and admissions of failings and feelings of both the present and years gone by. He’s called the record “a loose concept album,” which is a fair description as the songs do feel steeped in the same rather lonely place. Throughout it all, he exemplifies the Americana artist as a storyteller with a guitar slung across his or her shoulder — only he may have had a lot of more years practicing the craft than some of his younger, more popular counterparts.
The record opens with grit and gumption with “East Houston Blues,” the kind of song that tells of a man’s hard-luck tale with thumping auxiliary and crooning backup vocals to set a bluesy scene. But instead of turning up the dial, as some track twos are wont to do, Crowell turns it down a notch with the mysterious and moody “Reckless,” which furthers the narrative of a troubled life as something of an ode to self-sabotage. “There’s so much more that I could be / but I’m feeling reckless,” Crowell sings, backed by fiddles and an upright bass.
Crowell stays true to a songwriter’s craft as far as being self-reflective, and his life appears to be an open book. There are references to friends and colleagues like Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson. He sings the rock-tinged “Life Without Susanna” as an ode to his one-time muse — who was married to Guy Clark — and how much it hurt him to see her “close to the end,” and how he is still finding himself after her loss. It’s as honest and vulnerable an admission a man can make, and Crowell does not mince his words.
Then comes “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which was given to fans who pre-ordered the album as an early download. It is easily the most memorable and enjoyable track on the album, and not only because of its star-caliber guest vocals from Roseanne Cash and John Paul White. The song has a heartfelt confession of how love lasts, “I don’t care what you think you heard / we’re still learning how to fly,” Crowell sings. As a mid-tempo track with layered guitar lines and three-part harmonies, it features some of the most musically appealing arrangements on the record.
The duet “I’m Tied to Ya,” featuring Sheryl Crow, is a maudlin, mysterious ballad with exotic undertones and Crowell’s own blistering guitar work. Then the brutally honest self-reflection continues on “Forgive me Annabelle,” a song that features Crowell admitting his own failings in romance while seeming to acquiesce he knows he is giving too little too late. It’s a heartbreaker, if only to hear the hurt in his voice and realize such feelings don’t diminish with age.
“Storm Warning” comes across as lessons from a life lived well but among turbulence, with a song structure, chord progression and backup vocal line that makes the track feel like the most poppy and adult contemporary of the bunch. Then the ten tracks close on a soft and reminiscent note with “Nashville 1972” and its acoustic melody holding down Crowell’s trip down memory lane with the other musicians and artists with whom he came up — including a memorable if somewhat regrettable party with Willie Nelson in attendance.
With each track, Crowell shows he is the type of musician who hasn’t let his long career and myriad accomplishments twinge his self-perception or cramp his style; his work remains largely ego-free. And while he may have been doing this for most of his life, he sure doesn’t seem tired of it yet.