Bruce Hornsby, after a lengthy period of exploring old-time American roots music, makes a bold step into the textures of modern classical on this advance track from Solo Concerts. You hear it in the angles of both his playing and his lyrical construction on “Life in the Psychotropics” — though, at the same time (just as Hornsby sings here) when he goes there, he takes a scenic route.
At its base, Hornsby is dissecting our modern-day habit of seeking escape in often easy remedies. “Life in the Psychotropics” challenges, musically, in a similar way. He quickly sets about connecting Professor Longhair and inventive modernists like, say, Elliott Carter or Arnold Schoenberg.
That makes for an utterly fascinating journey, one that brings in the grace notes of Hornsby’s biggest hits (unavoidable, after all, once you add his honeysuckled voice), whispers of rollicking bluegrass, R&B and shaped-note hymns from his more recent releases, and something seemingly new — both to Hornsby’s catalog and to much of an audience who found him around the time of 1986’s “The Way It Is.”
Still, these daring, sometimes dissonant moments were always there, deep inside his music, if you looked past the dulcimers and banjos. Hornsby was, and is, one of the last decades’ most expressive piano stylists, even if that didn’t become immediately obvious until 1993’s superlative Harbor Lights. It all promises to make Solo Concerts, due on August 25, 2014, via Vanguard Records, one of Hornsby’s most personal projects ever — and, without question, one of his most challenging. Recorded over U.S. concerts in 2012-13, the album works as a bold alliance of Americana and classical ambition.
Think it can’t be done? “Life in the Psychotropics” has already proved otherwise.