Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
This album shouldn’t have worked as well as it did.
Believe it or not, that’s a statement made more about the passage of time than it is about the Mavericks. It’s debatable whether they were ever really part of the neotraditionalist movement of the ‘90s – mostly due to favoring a Latin, Tex-Mex and rockabilly fusion (that would only really gain consistency after their mainstream country radio days ended, starting with the excellent Trampoline) and due to the fact that they weren’t really hitmakers.
Honestly, too, for as wonderful as that era is, musically, it’s not like most singles didn’t have the occasional bits of reverb to sand away the rougher edges, which never really fit for what this band tried to do. Alright, though; that can be fixed by cutting away the Nashville sheen – there’s other reasons for why this shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. For one, the band split in 2004, and frontman Raul Malo’s solo career was fairly prolific as it was. When they signed to Big Machine Records, then, it wasn’t that anyone doubted the band’s potential to make a comeback – it’s that it was fair to ask how much artistic creativity was really left for this band.
In Time, though, blew away all expectations. Not only was it a complete reinvention of the Mavericks, it was one of the best albums of that year. And even if it didn’t result in a commercial comeback at country radio, the Mavericks had arguably never been better than at that point.
Yet, like with other albums of the past decade, I find it hard to really contextualize why that is. It’s a fun, energetic, bouncy fusion of styles that only rarely slows down, and even those moments are among the best on the entire project. In short, it’s a comeback from an album that sounds glad to be back, and it’s hard not to ultimately get wrapped in that explosive energy.
Ironically, for a band that emanated from the ‘90s and have songs with production that shows it, In Time reaches back even further in time to the ‘50s and ‘60s; with the rockabilly shuffle and interplay of saxophone and horns on “As Long As There’s Loving Tonight” sounding like an updated version of that era (unsurprising, too, given that Malo has regularly covered Elvis Presley songs). The band would get a bit too lost in their love for retro tinges on next album Mono, but here they avoid the confinements of a lo-fi aesthetic in favor of something deeper and fresher; even seedier at points.
That, in a nutshell, is the key to this album – a knack for excellent grooves, insanely catchy melodies and Malo’s charisma to carry it all. In a just world, “Born To Be Blue” could have been a huge radio hit with that thicker electric groove, and tracks like “Come Unto Me” and “Call Me When You Get To Heaven” showed them pushing into darker territory to insanely (and surprisingly) effective degrees. And the actual formula doesn’t change much: a healthy blend of ska horns, accordion, ragged and rollicking acoustics and electric axes and piano every now and then. What does change is the subtle approaches to composition that keep these tracks easy and free-flowing, yet never really dull (outside of maybe one or two weaker moments). The best example is the crescendo that defines the closer “Call Me When You Get To Heaven,” which increasingly adds tension to its performance to effectively play off Malo’s desperate cry of urgency. The album does lean into melodrama every now and then, but it’s usually either have to fun with the situation at hand or, in this case, add a surprising amount of heaviness to an incredibly heavy song.
Of course, part of that also has to do with Malo himself – a fantastic personality with a huge range, tons of charisma, a liquid smooth delivery and the sort of old-school presence and charm that can make this material work without feeling kitschy (though he’ll also take the praise given to him and extend it toward his fellow band members, which one has to respect). There’s a theatrical presence to his delivery that helps the few dramatic moments here, and with a strong emotive range to boot, for as much as I ultimately love this album for its unbridled energy, “In Another’s Arms” and “Call Me When You Get To Heaven” are easy highlights for showcasing a more serious presence for Malo. Otherwise, given, again, how strong the hooks and melodies are, there’s never a moment here that doesn’t feel huge (the chorus of “Amsterdam Moon” is a personal favorite of mine).
If there’s one criticism I do understand for this album, it would come in the writing, which has never been particularly strong for the band, but also hasn’t really mattered when it’s not the driving factor of these performances. On a pure tonal level, it doesn’t even really make sense for performances mostly about lost love to sound this infectious, and I do wish the album had more moments of regretful wist or deeper emotional framing like “In Another’s Arms.” With that said, the writing is never bad, nor is it ever goofy even when it has the chance; it’s intentionally simple and written to frame the performances (not the way other around, which is the usual method).
But In Time is, for sure, an absolute blast to both hear and revisit, sharpening the band’s best elements to craft their best album yet. The performances are stellar, Malo is an absolute force to be reckoned with, and the writing is pretty fun, if broad, too. It helps that it never takes itself too seriously, and even then it still lands with a lot of impact. A late-career treasure that marked the beginning of a new creative era for the band, in short.