Album Review: T-Bone Burnett - "The True False Identity"
Yes, it's been 14 years since Burnett's last album, years in which he has eschewed songwriting in favor of film work and producing such obscure little acts as Couting Crows, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, Bruce Cockburn, Sam Phillips, the Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, Jackopierce, Jackson Browne, Freedy Johnson, Marshall Crenshaw, Los Lobos, Natalie Merchant, the BoDeans, Tony Bennett, k.d.lang, and, well, you get the idea. He's been keeping busy. And while it can be argued that no album is good enough to be worth waiting a decade and more for (except perhaps Peter Gabriel's Up), The True False Identity is a fairly good payoff.
This is Burnett in classic spooky distorted poetic so-ugly-it's-beautiful form, and in many ways it is as if he didn't miss a beat. The opening track, "Zombieland" meanders for a bit too long, but "Palestine, Texas" is vintage talking-song Burnett, complete with Criminal-style command for the guitar solo to "Go!" Burnett's respect and love for the history of uniquely American music forms is on display in "Seven Times Hotter than Fire," "There Would Be Hell to Pay," and "Baby Don't You Say You Love Me," songs that look completely standard on paper but which Burnett somehow manages to make fresh. The album is split into two "sides," the first six tracks under the heading "Art of the State," and the last six "Poems of the Evening." No explanation is forthcoming in the liner notes. Yeah, it's a T-Bone Burnett record all right.
Burnett's lyrics shine as usual, particularly in overkill-repeating mode: "Palestine, Texas" is punctuated by repetitions of "This version of the world will not be here long / It is already gone, it is already gone," and "Every Time I Feel the Shift" concludes with Blind Boys of Alabama-style harmonies sorrowfully proclaiming that "We're marching up to Zion / The beautiful city of God." He's covering familiar ground here in typically ambiguous fashion; we've heard many of the ideas in "Hollywood Mecca of the Movies" and "Fear Country" before. Burnett's genius as a lyricist is that you're not sure whether to agree with him or bristle: Is he talking about me? I think he's talking about me. If some of his targets (media culture, hypocrisy, personal guilt, broken romance, ambivalence) seem like old material re-cycled, we can forgive him after a 14-year hiatus, right?
What isn't forgivable are the number of songs that no longer interest me, just a week after getting this disc. "Zombieland" has become an automatic "skip-forward" track already, which is odd for Burnett. "Seven Times Hotter than Fire" and "I'm Going on a Long Journey" also have far less interesting melodies, structures, and lyrics than I'm accustomed to. There are some amazing songs on this album, particularly "Hollywood Mecca of the Movies," "There Would be Hell to Pay," "Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce)," and the concluding "Shaken Rattled and Rolled;" Burnett always knows how to end an album on an unsettling-yet-hopeful note. But the songwriting is more uneven than we've seen in the past. I'm not accustomed to hearing T-Bone Burnett songs that I don't love. "Long Journey," in particular, makes me feel a little embarrassed to be listening.
It is perhaps a direct result of Burnett's recent body of work that the star of the album is the way it sounds. The aural soundscape is ancient and timeless; the sounds seeming to seep sticky from the floor of a filthy East Texas nightclub. Marc Ribot's guitar work is familiar to Sam Phillips fans, and this is only the first of many similarities between Identity and Phillips' last two (Burnett-produced) albums, Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe. All three albums are fearlessly ugly-sounding in places, perfectly and carefully unpolished and scorning to be categorized, low on effects and high on character. The arrangements on Identity are fairly simple: one or two guitars, double bass (from Dennis Crouch) and drums. Burnett's and Ribot's guitars are ugly America, ranging from simple acoustic chords to distorted noise. Crouch's bass is classic; if you're listening to him it's a feast, but if you're not it simply propels you through the music.
The drums are what make this album worth listening to more than any other. No fewer than three drummers, Carla Azar, Jay Bellerose (also confusingly spelled Belarose in some places), and Jim Keltner, are listed, and all three seem to be playing at once. It is this trio who provide the punctuation marks for Burnett's musical sentences, in similar fashion to their contributions to Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe. There's precious little "one-TWO-three-FOUR" drumming here; instead there are levels of hand percussion, odd sounds (Bellerose was once credited with playing "drums, percussion, and found items"), and non-traditional beats and emphases. Bellerose is fast becoming one of my favorite drummers (along with Phil Collins, Mike Portnoy, Sue Hadjopoulos, and Manu Katche), and his fingerprints are everywhere. Some very conventional, even somewhat uninteresting songs (such as "Zombieland") are rescued by this trio's constant innovation and unpredictability. Perhaps it's the sheer number of drummers that give the album its slightly claustrophobic feel; it's as if the band is all in the room with you, and the room is just a little too small, hot, and smoky for the bunch of you.
The irony of The True False Identity is this: After reading that it was coming out, I dove back into Burnett's previous work, especially 1992's The Criminal Under My Own Hat, to prepare. After a couple listens to Identity, I am finding myself returning to Criminal over and over, and learning songs from that album on guitar. I'm also inspired to listen to Sam Phillips' Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe, (heavily Burnett-influenced due to Phillips' status as his wife, then ex-wife) which explore a similar sonic canvas with much more compelling melodies and structures. I guess what it comes down to is that The True False Identity is revisiting familiar ground a bit too much, ground that was walked much more gracefully by these other three albums. But the problem isn't so much that Identity is lackluster; it's that Criminal, Fan Dance, and A Boot are just really remarkable works, and Identity's resemblance to them creates comparisons which few albums could win.
The bottom line is that The True False Identity is in every way a T-Bone Burnett album, very much written by Burnett and very much produced by Burnett, and if you're a fan of Burnett the musician or of Burnett the producer, you need to have it. It's been a long time coming.