Given how stacked the remainder of this year is with new album releases – especially after a slower first half – it comes as no small feat to say that this album is easily my most anticipated release of the year thus far, and one that’s been a long time coming.
And beyond the obvious trademarks of James McMurtry’s expertly crafted poetry and knack for solid storytelling, the beauty of this release, at least to me, comes through in what it represents in the modern age. McMurtry is nearing his sixties and not only still releasing new music, but crafting albums that stand as among his best since at least 2004’s Live in Aught-Three. The thing is, though, he takes his time to release new music, and while I would gladly claim 2015’s mostly acoustic Complicated Game as one of the best of the decade (and did), it was also his only release for the time period.
The art of waiting is generally an extinct concept in the modern era, especially when there’s something new to hear every week and album releases get spoiled by the bundle of pre-release tracks that make the actual release day somewhat meaningless. In other words, while we don’t get many new McMurtry releases anymore, they’re usually worth getting excited about. On the other hand, between “Canola Fields” and “If It Bleeds,” I was excited to hear a shift back toward a more rock-leaning, Americana-inspired direction, especially when I’ve been absorbing the bulk of his work a lot lately.
What catches me by surprise, then, is not only how much more accessible his latest album is – especially in comparison to the aforementioned Complicated Game, but also to his entire discography in general – but how much of what makes it work is largely readily available on the surface. In other words, for as complex as his works can usually get, this is McMurtry’s most refreshingly straightforward album yet in terms of pacing and thematic content. And yet it doesn’t feel a compromised album, either. It still feels like an adult work fitting for where McMurtry is currently at in his career, but in many ways it also feels like a need for one last thrill, in turn continuing the thematic arcs established by his last few albums, but also offering an album that works as a lighter moment of reflection for it all.
Of course, that’s more of a note on the content, so let’s address the return to form in sound first. By plugging back in and cranking up the electric axes, one could make the argument that, even though it’s a familiar sound for him, this is easily McMurtry’s most expressive work in terms of pure tone and consistency. The foundation is still there in the thicker, roiling grooves, and the production is excellent in a way that balances gritty percussion and guitars where every strum is captured. This time around, though, it all feels more pronounced, thanks to a stronger melodic focus and McMurtry’s subtle balance of emotions he can convey through his haggard tone. No, he’s never been a technically stellar vocalist, but between the huge choruses and hooks demanded of him on “Canola Fields,” “It If Don’t Bleed,” or “Blackberry Winter,” he holds his own fairly well here.
And honestly, that’s basically the winning formula here: strong melodic chops anchored by meaty, well-chosen guitar tones, equally solid hooks to support them, and a lead singer who can play things straight while also lending empathy to characters who sometimes don’t deserve it. That last part is nothing new for McMurtry, but to have an album excel on the basics is a nice fit, I admit – especially when I’d still argue there’s plenty to appreciate even within the simplicity, too: the moody sway anchored by the terrific violin work that only intensifies as things progress on “Jackie,” the thicker strumming to match an equally heavy story on “Decent Man,” the gentle touches in the accordion work on “Vaquero” to make the sendoff to a friend sound wistful, and the crunchy, stomping firepower on display in the title track, just to name a few examples.
Even with that said, the main attractions with every McMurtry release are the stories and themes, and where even though McMurtry himself claims he’s a fiction writer who writes self-contained stories never meant to connect with one another, there’s still a main motif running throughout his works. I’d argue the main one since 2005’s Childish Things is of letting go of youth and accepting the responsibilities that come with growing older. And when stretched out over 16 years since then … well, if Complicated Game was very much about weary resignation and acceptance of the situation, The Horses and the Hounds is about finding one last spark – either to reignite old flames or to find a passion suitable for older characters. It’s what makes the wistfulness of these sentiments come alive in places like “Canola Fields,” which isn’t a conventional reflection of a past summer romance, but rather a reflection on what didn’t happen and how the characters have only found that spark for each other now that they’re older. Not only that, they’ve found something deeper with time that would have likely faded too quickly from being too young then. And when it comes to joyous acceptance of where one is at in life, it’s hard to beat something so utterly joyous as that, or the simpler “live and let live” sentiments of “If It Don’t Bleed.”
But then there’s those characters where the hunt for something more out of life turns into a quiet desperation, a burden carried alone until it’s too late. “Blackberry Winter” is the simplest examination of it, a track that finds a mother left to tend to an empty nest and question where her next thrill will come from and search aimlessly for it. It’s what also makes the arc of the “Jackie” character so depressing, a horse farmer who’s had everything seized by the government and is trying to hang on to what’s left, only to find comfort in an affair and meet a tragic end because she feels that’s all she’s good for anymore. This album gets damn-near biblical in its deeper metaphors of despair and the natural circumstances that drive these characters mad, like the drunken stupor adapted from a Wendell Berry story that turns into a tragedy on “Decent Man,” a track where McMurtry’s knack for painting seedy characters still worthy of empathy really shines. And though the title track is also fairly straightforward in its story of someone on the run for some old sinful thing they’ve done, in terms of the pure muscle, a lack of greater details is just fine. It rocks anyway.
Of course, there’s also the side of McMurtry that leans into straightlaced humor and paints characters bound to be unlikable, and while “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call” is a pretty stupid song in that regard, between the amazingly handled fast-paced talk-singing (take notes, Walker Hayes) and a flow akin to an old man’s humorous ramblings – I’ve sang “I keep losing my glasses” way too many times by now – it may as well be a prequel scenario for a character on his way to the “Choctaw Bingo” reunion. “What’s the Matter” tries this formula again to a degree, but is a tad more conventional in every department and is likely the only real weak track of the bunch, though I will say I also think he handled the war theme of “Operation Never Mind” better on past tracks like “Memorial Day” and “Holiday,” too.
And as for where The Horses and the Hounds sits overall in McMurtry’s long and storied discography … that’s a tougher question, I admit. There’s no wild eight-minute epics on display, but I’d argue the decision to opt for brevity in the metaphors used and heftier tones in the production still makes for a compelling listen, and one where McMurtry’s writing is still as sharp as ever. With that said, it does feel like a lighter release for him overall – one last wild ride for his characters that feels oddly yet refreshingly fun and jubilant for McMurtry as a whole. Again, accessibility is the key word I keep coming back to here, and with a strong sense of consistency and pacing, it may not be his magnum opus, but it is a blast while still being substantive, too. And at this point, considering most artists tend to wind down or settle for less 30 years after they debut, it’s inspiring to have something this excellent from McMurtry at this point in his career. He’s still got it, folks.
- Favorite tracks: “Jackie,” “Canola Fields,” “Decent Man,” “If It Don’t Bleed,” “Blackberry Winter,” “The Horses and the Hounds”
- Least favorite track: “What’s the Matter”