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 is an … ironic selection.
Ironic in that, for an artist with a discography stretching back all the way to the late ‘80s, James McMurtry only released one album in the 2010s. Even that, too, didn’t ring with the same firepower as his earlier work.
Given its placement here, I obviously don’t mean that as a slight on its quality. It’s, instead, a note on timing and influence. We’re kinda-sorta right where we were about 15 years ago, when culture was torn on political lines amid the War on Terror. Country music, for the most part, responded poorly overall then, and though McMurtry is only loosely associated with the genre (and certainly not its mainstream portion), he didn’t hold back with his own work that decade. Childish Things, from 2005, had a righteous edge of venom to it with songs like “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” critical of the right people and harsh in tone. It was all too densely layered to reach a larger audience, but it only reaffirmed how McMurtry was a writer with a knack for underscoring every detail of his scenarios. Three years after that album’s release, Just Us Kids may have even burned a bit brighter.
After that, though, … nothing, at least until Complicated Game in 2015 – an album where the metaphorical fire burned out and McMurtry aimed for a release of loosely connected story songs, some of which still had that bite to them, and some of which didn’t. All, however, reflected McMurtry’s knack for nailing humanity within his stories. Perhaps there’s another irony in McMurtry’s loosest, most reflective release coming in 2015 of all years. The social commentary is still there, mind you; it’s just tempered with a weary resignation.
Not to make too much out of titles, either, but 10 years after McMurtry’s (arguably) most well-known releases, it’s fitting that the passage of time shifts titles like those aforementioned childish ones into something, well … complicated. As always, McMurtry’s stories offer layers of complexity and loads of moral ambiguity, and for as much of an artistic approach as McMurtry takes here, there’s no real thematic core running throughout Complicated Game. Each song rings as a self-contained story, where the narrators shift from fishermen to lonesome drifters and soldiers all trying to find their place in this world. Which, in a sense, is the very loose thread tying this album together. Sometimes it’s marked by McMurtry’s wry sense of humor, like on “She Loves Me” – where the narrator’s job forces him to be away from home for extended periods of time, to which his significant other counters him by outright admitting she’s going to sleep with other men while he’s away. And it’s OK because he knows she loves him (“she’ll vote him off the island the minute I return” is one of my favorite lines, well, ever), and weird as it sounds, it’s an oddly mature way of looking at it all. Again, though, morally ambiguous as hell, too.
If anything, coming off the anger that tinged his previous albums, Complicated Game is among McMurtry’s most fun albums. It’s a laid-back production style, and the heavier acoustic focus means the easy criticism is that the album focuses too much on substance over the actual presentation of it all, but I’d argue there’s enough going on to counter that statement. “She Loves Me” brings in doo-wop elements because … why not – it’s already weird enough. And there’s a thick, swampy bassline defining “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” that makes for one of McMurtry’s grimiest cuts since “Choctaw Bingo.” Plus, the moments reliant more on storytelling over flash are potent, too, if only because there’s an immediate warmth to the acoustic strums, where every sound and crack is captured – the most striking example being album opener “Copper Canteen.” Those little moments are subtle, like how much rollicking warmth the banjo gives the cutesier “Ain’t Got A Place” or, conversely, adds a minor tone to “Carlisle’s Haul.” And when those Uillean pipes cry out on “Long Island Sound,” it makes for one of the most potent moments on the entire album. Of course, the stronger island influence in the content means there’s a forgettable beach-inspired tune in “Forgotten Coast,” which, while fun, is among the weaker moments here. I’ve also always thought McMurtry’s vocals sat a bit too high in the mix on “Cutler,” if I’m looking for more small nitpicks.
Going back to the note on the passage of time, however, it’s another subtler detail that threads much of Complicated Game together. It’s a common theme, too, which is why it helps that McMurtry’s characters ruminate on the fuller picture that comes with choices made. Take the narrator on “Long Island Sound,” for example, who moves from the country to the city and finds that life mostly improves: he’s got a good job and has left his heritage behind, which was never that likable anyway. Yet there’s still a tinge of melancholy to it, if only because he thinks about the friends and loved ones he left behind too, and in the case of one insignificant other, he just wishes she found the same happiness he did. “Mature” is the easiest adjective to use to describe this album, and though there’s an unfortunate number of love songs that model their presentation off of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” on “These Things I’ve Come To Know,” there’s, instead, a genuine respect for how this narrator’s significant other is free-spirited; he’d like to live up to that example, if anything. It’s all tinged with sadness in most spots, but also fun a lot of the time, too.
Still, it’s a track like “Long Island Sound” – which blends both of those elements together – that strikes as Complicated Game at its best. It’s the same complex framing that makes me love “You Got To Me,” a track where the narrator is forced to watch an old flame get married. There, of course, could be genuine bitterness at the entire affair, but there’s a general acceptance of it all here. He knows he had his moment, and the track itself is never tinged with bitterness or even sadness – just a fleeting hope and wistfulness to try and recapture an old memory.
And as – at least of this writing – McMurtry’s latest release, Complicated Game occupies a weird place in his discography. It’s an album caught between two eruptive historical timelines, and as such, is the album where McMurtry stopped to reflect for just a moment. Of course, the larger point of McMurtry’s writing is that it’s never outright his own story to tell. Which is to say that, while Complicated Game is not the immediate standout in McMurtry’s discography, it’s all tempered with the same haggard delivery and presentation that comprises his best work. And as a light release that still manages to cram in one standout track after another, it’s among the most thoughtful listens of the 2010s.