Lambchop’s 11th album, Mr. M, arrives with such a heavy heart and in a healing time for Kurt Wagner after his close friend Vic Chesnutt’s suicide (on Christmas Day, 2009) that it’s no surprise to hear it initially bore the working title Major League Bummer – in reality, the working title was the second one considered after a certain MLB team objected the reference to their club mascot in the initial title of Mr. Met. The Nashville collective have long been an aberration from the conventional boundaries of their colleagues, providing a backing musical tapestry of lounge, Burt Bacharach-type arrangements and jazzy swing while fronted by Kurt Wagner’s tires-on-a-gravel-road vibrato.
Across the nine songs and two instrumentals, Mr. Wagner ruminates on life, loss and love in his unique fashion, drawing on the mundane of everyday life in order to express something deeply soulful and poetic. The result is undoubtedly the band’s finest work since 2002’s Is a Woman, and marks another high point in the strange career of this very special group.
Songs are swathed in delicate piano and mournful violin, tempos are funeral-procession slow and singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner often mutters his dazed words like a man still shaking off the effects of some unspoken tragedy. There’s some truth to this, too. Wagner actually penned much of Mr. M as a means of processing the 2009 suicide, and that sense of loss weighs heavily on songs like “2B2,” a mournful number about the challenge of connecting with humanity at large. On “Gone Tomorrow” Wagner peels back the curtain to his turmoil a bit more with my favorite line of the album, “The wine tasted like sunshine in the basement.” – a bittersweet sentiment that evokes the internal pain he is simultaneously battling and emoting.
The lead song, “Mr. Met,” is a marginally more direct lyrical take on the subject of friendship and loss (‘met’ being the past tense of ‘meet’). Clearly, there is always a residue of anger and resentment when someone close leaves us of their own volition: “I think of you today, boy what an a-hole. You made me spare, like used software. I will not follow you.” The song, however, is dripping with such tenderness that, for all the rage, the remembrance of his lost friend shines through.
In turn, characters struggle with solitude, loss and sinking prospects throughout: “This was their last night on the continent,” Wagner sings on “Gone Tomorrow,” “The production was shutting down” – and there’s a sense every character passing through Wagner’s orbit could use a good stiff drink and a kind ear. But the song represents Wagner’s views of distraction and the replacement of thought, a theme which runs throughout the record. But while Wagner’s words often sound as if they were dragged bloodied and beaten from gutters littered with broken lives, the musical backdrop remains universally comforting, lush instrumentation folding around the singer like a welcoming embrace.
So even in those darkest moments when Wagner moans about the good life being wasted on him, there’s still an overriding sense things will eventually improve – a feeling supported by the album’s redemptive closer “Never My Love.” The song directly addresses the concept of love in a way unheard of in any previous Lambchop song – “To be without (love) would be a losers bid,” sings Wagner amidst a warm backdrop of swooning strings, acoustic guitar notes that flutter like multicolored butterflies and sweetly romantic female backing vocalists, “Now that I get the hang of it, my love.” It’s a beautiful little vignette of deepest feeling where Wagner confesses, “Love I’ve never thought about it, just some silly word that people use.” The fact he can round off a record that is so full of loss and heartache with this admission is quite remarkable and indicates a level of catharsis and maturity that has been accumulated through years of personal torment.
On the first listen of Mr. M, an album that clocks in just under an hour, it is shocking that only half way through the record, when listening to “Gar”, that so much content has been packed into such little time. I’m not saying the record drags, but Wagner treats his first twenty-eight minutes with such grace and patience that it could have been a record all its own. Every spin of Mr. M is in and of itself an epic journey through Wagner’s thoughts. With so much heartache equally balanced with so much love despite the loss, Lambchop delivers one of their finest works to date. Good luck and good listening.