Milquetoast, soulful and uncanny at the same time
The ’90s were weird, to the point where even the normally smooth adult alternative scene got a little strange. There are Sheryl Crow and her oddball, loose writing style and approach to production, the jagged edges of Alanis Morisette that one would never expect from a former dance-pop artist, the entirety of Live’s discography. Hell, even Hootie and the Blowfish’s biggest hit features a whole verse that was ripped straight from Bob Dylan with no reason or acknowledgment. Joan Osborne’s debut record Relish, which featured the childlike hit “One of Us,” fits neatly into this sphere, with nearly six-minute-long songs and a lot of ugly, dark country-folk production more fit for The Cardigans than that person who wrote “One of Us.” Trouble and Strife, her 10th record and first of original material in six years, is certainly her strangest since her debut, an admirable record with missteps in its progressive messaging and mismatch of styles.
Those who only know Osborne for “One of Us” will be surprised to know that she’s proven herself capable across multiple genres, not just folk. 2012’s Bring It On Home and its selection of soul and R&B classics from the likes of Ike Turner and Otis Reading displayed how rich and seductive her voice has gotten with age, and 2017’s Songs of Bob Dylan had her tackle some of the most recognizable folk tune of all time and mostly stick the landing.
On Trouble and Strife, Osborne still has a smoky yet smooth delivery that serves her well over the loose funk of “Never Get Tired (Of Loving You),” the saloon piano and fat bass line of “Boy Dontcha Know” that features some really warm multi-tracking and the outlaw country vibes of the title track that echoes Lucinda Williams’ “Can’t Let Go.” The production as a whole is open and lush, yet the tonal choices can be off. The opener, “Take It Any Way I Can Get It,” has nice acoustic jangles that are sadly overtaken by this sour, keening guitar tone, and those spacey synthesizers on “Never Get Tired (Of Loving You)” belong in a ’70s disco tune and feel out of place.
For an album that was apparently inspired by the “crazy, chaotic times we’re living in” and features songs about misinformation, refugees and even gender dysphoria, it’s rather low-key and restrained, almost like Ashley Monroe making the calmest break-up record ever on The Blade. Osborne is too tasteful a performer to cut loose or match the rougher edges of “Hands Off” or the minor key acoustics, tense drumming and meditative-turned-repetitive vibe of “Panama” that was a strange choice to end the album. That closing song and “Meat & Potatoes,” which sounds and is delivered like a food-as-metaphor-for-sex song yet is so detailed and straight-faced it has to be taken literally, are the two main examples of the album’s unclear intentions. Even when the album addresses a more complex topic, it feels like one’s grandma is trying her hardest to be woke and progressive yet not fully getting it.
“Boy Dontcha Know” discusses a FTM transperson in a very folksy, authentic way, yet it also refers to them with feminine pronouns, which undercuts its impact. Across all of this, Osborne and her band are delivering great performances, and Trouble and Strife does have a strangely hypnotic vibe even in its mix of banality and weirdness, much like Sheryl Crow. It’s like a beautiful painting that is slightly crooked or used the wrong colors, which doesn’t diminish the construction of the image yet does not result in a fully satisfying experience.