There are certain expectations one can place on a new Marty Stuart album, especially alongside his Fabulous Superlatives: It’ll usually be a concept-based album set to provide an adrenaline rush of some variety, and it’ll usually be a mind-warping experience alone just based on production and instrumentation. The distinct goal is usually to preserve country music tradition – both historically and sonically – and Stuart’s albums dating back to at least The Pilgrim have all provided fantastic discussion points for any serious scholar of country music, all for their own distinct reasons.
This is an odd case, however – a delayed follow-up project meant as something of a companion/sequel to 2017’s Way Out West, one of my favorite albums of the entire decade for its choice to bridge the gap between late ‘60s country and rock with early ‘70s psychedelia and honky-tonk. So it’s already got big shoes to fill, and while I won’t say this album captures the high-octane, grandiose splendor of its sibling project, it works for what it is as a more lighthearted affair.
And yet, even that doesn’t feel like a fair way to summarize it, because the more listens I gave to Altitude, the more it just clicked as its own individual effort. It’s tethered and rooted to something else in time and in actuality, for sure, but it’s also a more compact listen that may be easier to revisit and is just a blast all the way through. In other words … yeah, this will likely go down as one of my favorite albums of the entire year.
Of course, by virtue of its assembly, it is going to invite comparisons and contrasts to Way Out West, and I think the tough part is really nailing down what Altitude does differently as its own project. Way Out West certainly felt darker and a bit more sprawling in establishing how the lone cowboy mentality is more of a philosophy or a code than anything else – where that trip out west could have easily referred to a physical destination, or a place of inner comfort in the mind. A fantasy trip of the best variety, which Altitude is all set to follow. But it feels somehow looser and a bit more self-aware, not just in the references made to country-rock pioneers, but also through Stuart’s own account of the traveler mentality that came with establishing one’s self as a country music star of that era through “Country Star,” and in how it loses itself within that journey.
Basically, if Way Out West was about establishing the journey to get to its destination, Altitude has arrived to it and ready to revel in nearly every moment. Not to say there isn’t still that streak of loneliness and a void for our character that needs to be filled – hell, “Sitting Alone” just may be the country version of “California Dreamin’” in that regard – but the deeper attempts at drama here feel muted for the better. It is, admittedly, the kind of album one really experiences above anything else (much like its predecessor), and given how sharp and clear the production always is in centering those big roiling melodic grooves, it’s hard to complain with the results.
It’s also hard to complain by how, despite working with that specific frame-of-reference and era in mind, the album is wonderfully varied and textured across the board. Maybe goofy at points off the AM sheen of “Sitting Alone” or the fittingly low-key, bluesy bounce of “Nightriding,” but always committed to establishing its atmosphere as a point of accessibility; just come along for the ride, and you’ll generally be just fine. There’s a hunger present for the desperate dreamers not content enough off the sharper, darker pummel of “A Friend of Mine,” but I’d also say it all circles back to the title track – how the thrill of the hunt for whatever personal treasures one is after or seeks is a journey worth preserving in some form, no matter where it actually leads.
Sure, it’s the sort of fantasy-driven search for pleasure that feels very of its era in how low-stakes it can feel in trying to chase those dreams. But if you can appreciate that for a temporary wild ride, this album certainly delivers. And it’s hard not to get swept in that atmosphere by how committed the album is to recreating those lost scenes, not just in the sitar-driven “Space” that’s very manic and trippy, but also in the ‘60s country bounce of the title track anchored in those great pedal steel licks. And with the slight echo that shimmer off the old-school strings that anchor “The Sun Is Quietly Sleeping,” it’s got that cinematic, Bond-movie feel down perfectly. If I had to nitpick, I would have maybe preferred a few less quirky pivots and more hard-charged, straightforward moments like “Time to Dance” that allow this album a chance to really fly and provide just a bit more variety in tempo; there are probably less moments of overall splendor here compared to Way Out West in that regard.
But the subtle but key anchoring point of this project, much like before, is that it always feels lonely and unforgiving in helping those who’d choose to take that metaphorical journey find what they’re really after. Freedom doesn’t necessarily equate to fulfillment here, which is what makes the technical closing track in “The Angels Came Down” really heartbreaking as a reminder of that. It’s temporary solace one will eventually come down from, but that ride is worth it every step of the way. And as for me … hell, I’d gain ground with it any time. Put in on, let it fly, and get lost within it – there are very few albums that offer that sort of experience, let alone a second time around.
- Favorite tracks: “Country Star,” “Sitting Alone,” “A Friend of Mine,” “Altitude,” “Vegas,” “Nightriding,” “Time to Dance,” “The Angels Came Down”
- Least favorite track: “Lost Byrd Space Train – Epilogue” for feeling a bit too brief and lacking as a closing moment, I guess.
2 thoughts on “Album Review: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives – ‘Altitude’”
I just started listening to this album yesterday and wound up listening to the whole thing in one sitting. Love it. And your review. I plan to use the three Lost Byrd Space Train tracks to 1) open my radio show Saturday, 2) open the second hour, and 3) close the show. Working hard to figure out what to put in between. Thanks for your insights. -Rob Howell (What Now on wscafm.org)
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I love your music I think it’s great I hope to hear some more like it. I’ve always loved your band and you and now I can add one more, Connie, tell her she still sounds great thanks for your music and your entertainment….