Four days after the last Lambchop album was released, a minority of Americans elected Donald Trump as their 45th president. Kurt Wagner had named the record FLOTUS – an acronym normally expanded to First Lady Of The United States – in wry tribute to his wife Mary Mancini, chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party; the personal, masquerading as the political. As usual, though, the warp and weft of Wagner’s songs contained myriad subtleties, ambiguities, private jokes and broader significances. If the prospect of Hilary Clinton becoming president seemed a given, Wagner was attentive enough to note the trauma and intimations embedded in the 2016 campaign. “Now we walk with weather most uncertain,” he sang in Writer. “Now we weather things beyond control.”
Two and a half years on, the climate has altered inexorably. Deep into the 13th Lambchop album (they are calling it their 14th, deeming 13 unlucky) Wagner observes how, “In the course of the night the weather has changed.” The song is called The December-ish You, and it presents this quixotic sage of Nashville sat with the newspaper, trying to process the noise of our new era. Meaning is obscured; static is deafening. “The forecast,” he adjudges, “is non-committal.”
There were some silly claims, around the time of Trump’s election, about how his presidency would be a boon for punk rock, for a stereotypically energetic and direct form of protest music. The truth, in keeping with the times, has proved to be a lot more complex and unpredictable. One response has been for artists to express anxiety and dislocation in the production of their music as well as in its content. Low’s Double Negative and Yo La Tengo’s There’s A Riot Going On, in particular, found both bands worrying away at their songs and structures with a new armoury of studio tools. A world destabilised had forced even the most resilient indie veterans to consider how their music should reflect minds and institutions in a seemingly permanent state of flux.
Lambchop had a head start on this reinvention phase, given how Wagner had digitally adjusted their country-soul sound on FLOTUS. Where once there had been a burnished, if sometimes rickety, accumulation of many instruments playing very quietly, now Lambchop reconfigured around Tony Crow’s piano, Matt Swanson’s bass and Wagner’s parched voice, given uncanny new properties thanks to Autotune. A technological gimmick, so joyless and ubiquitous in recent pop music, had been rendered human, and had given fresh impetus to such an understated, cherishable and perverse Americana act.
That perversity might have compelled Wagner to change tack again. But This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You) is very much a sequel to FLOTUS. Electronic input this time comes from Matt McCaughan, sometime drummer with Bon Iver and Hiss Golden Messenger, whose synth textures and twitchy beats fit harmoniously into Wagner’s evolving vision for his band. The twist comes with the album’s title and its cover – Wagner photographed in close-up, for once without his trademark hat. While both words and image play with the idea of direct and unfettered communication, the reality of the content is much harder to grasp.
This, then, finds Wagner calmly struggling to make sense of the historical moment. In the first song, The New Isn’t So You Anymore, he is “Searching for a news in a newspaper”, navigating a path through the organic and the electronically-adjusted, with the harmonica of Nashville vet Charlie McCoy for company. Fake news makes its inevitable appearance in the gently upbeat Everything For You (kin to FLOTUS’ outstanding The Hustle), as Wagner strains for clarity. “The picture does appear,” he admits. “But something interferes.” By the time the title track fades in and out of view, “the air” has begun “to feel different”, the atmosphere has tilted towards prickly ambience, and Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet is picking its way through a fractured terrain; In A Silent Way for this most disquieting era.
The album ends with Flower. McCaughan’s tinkering is subdued, McCoy and his harmonica are back, and the Autotune has been switched off, but the removal of filters does not bring any concrete resolution. Wagner’s gift, throughout this immersive and thought-provoking record, is to provide something akin to consolation even as he radiates uncertainty. What This is trying to tell us, perhaps, is that emotional potency, however tentative and incoherent, can be detected amidst all the distortions of 2019; that a humane voice can still negotiate space for itself in an ever-more alienating world.
Kurt Wagner picture: Steve Gullick