Billy Bob Thornton – Beautiful Door (2007)

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NICK DERISO: Even four solo records later, you keep expecting Billy Bob Thornton to do something wacky on his new release “Beautiful Door,” to be issued by Universal on July 24.

See, in the movies, he’s Bad Santa. The Astronaut Farmer. That murderous dude in his Oscar-winning plot for “Sling Blade.”

Seems Thornton was a musician first — opening back when, it’s said, for bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs as part of a ZZ Top tribute band called Tres Hombres. So, perhaps, it should be less of a surprise when we find Billy Bob at the top of a different game: writing, singing and playing drums on “Beautiful Door.”

I’ll start by admitting that, yes, there is a funny song on this CD called “Always Countin,'” which nicely plays off Thornton’s well-known eccentricities — this time, talking about obsessive-compulsives. But more often, “Beautiful Door” offers a more emotional, meditative take on things.

“It’s Just Me” is apparently told from the point of view of someone who has committed suicide — and that’s the opening track. Thornton later provides a timely examination on the cost of war in “Hope for Glory.”

Thornton — often speaking, rather than singing — senses that there are no easy answers to such questions, and that makes this record that much better.

“In the Day,” for instance, at first seems to pine for a time now lost, recalling long-ago life in a small town.

“They’ve turned the The Ritz into a mall, torn down the Big and Tall,” Thornton sings. Then, later: “They took away the mom and pop; there’s a seven-acre stop where you buy new tires and bed sheets. Paula’s Record Shop is gone; it died a little with each song that was written by committee.”

Yet, the chorus that follows pulls no punches in dismissing such nostalgia, opting instead for a hard-eyed trudge toward whatever the future holds: “Something’s wrong when you can’t find the meaning,” Thornton sings, “since 1972.”

“Restin’ Your Soul,” the flip side of “It’s Just Me,” is a survivor’s tale — a meditation on loss that is as honest as it is shattering. “The Boy Is Gone” similarly mines the internal struggles a couple goes through after a searing tragedy.

Only the well-played but too-obviously composed social commentary “Pretty People,” which doesn’t do enough with some recent headlines, truly disappoints.

I remember hearing Thornton several years ago sitting in with Scruggs on the Johnny Cash standard “Ring of Fire,” and thinking: Not bad. (Thornton also appears on the new “Anchored in Love: A Tribute to June Carter Cash,” featuring Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello and Loretta Lynn, among others.)

But I never thought I would like a whole album of it.

I do.

Remarkable in both its honesty and execution, “Beautiful Door” makes you want to go find Thornton’s earlier efforts, including a 2001 debut co-written and co-produced by old-school country guy Marty Stuart. (Thornton also headlined at South By Southwest in the wake of 2003’s “The Edge of the World.”)

As recorded with guitarist Brad Davis (Stuart, Scruggs, Nelson), bassist Leland Sklar (Hall & Oates, CSN, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett) and keyboardist Teddy Andreadis (Guns ‘n’ Roses, Alice Cooper, “Skunk” Baxter), “Beautiful Door” is everything Thornton often hasn’t been in his wackadoo movie portrayals.

It’s an introspective country-rock record full of atmosphere and delicate insights. And, no, nobody kills Dwight Yoakam.

Purchase: Billy Bob Thornton – Beautiful Door

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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