James McMurtry – Complicated Game (2015)

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Somehow, James McMurtry got pegged as a protest singer, the fault of his barking indictment “We Can’t Make It Here” from 2005’s Childish Things and the cuttingly acerbic “Cheney’s Toy” from three years later.

Only he was always much more apt to delve into the personal, rather than the political — a narrative balance put back into place on the forthcoming Complicated Game, McMurtry’s first studio effort since 2008’s Just Us Kids.

In the meantime, he’s crisscrossed the country, playing most every night. That brought him in contact with Louisiana swamp-popper C.C. Adcock, who came on board as a co-producer after a four-album stretch in which McMurtry oversaw his own studio efforts. Sessions, held sporadically between dates, took place in New Orleans with Mike Napolitano, McMurtry’s other co-producer on Complicated Game — due Feb. 24, 2015 on a label of the same name.

Together, they’ve constructed James McMurtry’s most radio-ready sounding album ever, without surrendering his typically incisive tales. The lead single, “How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” sets the tone, as McMurtry rattles along a lonesome highway in the midst of a wack-job relationship meltdown — but framed by a very modern musical setting that deftly combines banjos and a raggedy rap.

The rest of the Complicated Game follows the same template, mixing in a few musical surprises (Irish pipes on “Long Island Sound,” special guests Ivan Neville and Benmont Tench on “You Got to Me”) but otherwise working in a restrained manner which helps spotlight McMurtry’s way with language.

As always, that’s a worthy pursuit. James McMurtry’s fierce attention to detail on story songs like “Copper Canteen” and “Deaver’s Crossing” draw out the deepest of emotions, and the most rueful of laughs — sometimes in successive lines. In fact, if anything, that narrative rigor seems to have come into sharper focus with the time away.

Take “South Dakota,” which brings us inside the sad and scary existence of a war veteran so desperate for work that he considers the unthinkable: Re-enlisting. At its heart, the message is not unlike “We Can’t Make It Here,” but far more effective because of the fashion in which James McMurtry determinedly focuses on the human element.

In this way, Complicated Game is no great leap forward, or backward, for the sturdy McMurtry, just a slight variation on a well-worn, but equally well-done, theme. The difference, as always, is in the details — the production touches, the moments of stirring lyrical specificity. After so long away, there’s both comfort and intrigue to be found here.

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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