The danger with the word masterpiece is its singularity: each artist gets just one. So when James McMurtry follows up two excellent records with his best work yet, the richly detailed and keenly observant Complicated Game, is this the peak? Or merely another step in a powerful streak? Either way, the seven-year wait between Just Us Kids and Complicated Game is quickly forgiven, the new record showcasing McMurtry’s unparalleled songwriting voice while taking a turn toward more traditional acoustic Americana. The album finds its subject matter mainly in relationships, and though the title is the same as his new label, the word Complicated is particularly fitting.
James McMurtry hasn't released an album since 2008, way back when singing protest songs about Dick Cheney and Hurricane Katrina was the thing. And sing about them he did, on Just Us Kids, which smoked with snorting Telecaster riffs and sharp, bitter commentary. By comparison, McMurtry sounds ruminative, world-weary, and just plain tired on his new album, Complicated Game, intoning mostly slow, acoustic songs in a deadpan drawl that at times sounds more like sighing than singing.
“Honey don’t you be yelling at me while I’m cleaning my gun.” In lesser hands, an opening line like that might signal a shallow, stereotypical piece of country-rock bombast was on its way. Good thing then the line in question is the kick-off for James McMurtry’s new album Complicated Game, which trades in honesty, humor, eloquence, and integrity every step of the way. Those qualities are what folks have come to expect of McMurtry, whose literary background rarely shows itself via ten-cent words or elaborate metaphors.
In “Ain’t Got a Place”, a song from his new album Complicated Game, James McMurtry sings “The skies are taller in Louisiana / The skies are wider in New Mexico / The skies in Texas kinda split the difference / It don’t suit me, no matter where I go / I ain’t got a place in this world”. In a simple arrangement of banjo, acoustic guitar, and drums, the speaker wittily suggests how the world’s oddities can be confronted with small amusement: “I’m looking out for all my interests / Looking in just brings me down”. Characteristic of songs throughout this album, the first-person speaker feels more like a created persona than a stand-in for the songwriter.
James McMurtry was an outstanding songwriter right out of the box, but learning the art of record-making took a while for him, and he was close to 20 years into his recording career when he cut 2008's Just Us Kids, his best and most effective album. If you'd imagine that McMurtry would use Just Us Kids as a template for his next studio album, you'd be selling the man short; 2015's Complicated Game is a similarly superb showcase for McMurtry's songwriting, but the feel and the themes of the album are decidedly different, and it demonstrates the man has more than one card up his sleeve. McMurtry brought in modern-day swamp rocker C.C.
We devour music at such a feverish pace that, more and more, great collections of songs fall through the cracks. In the case of the past six weeks, we uncovered such missed gems as Sacred Bones’ idea of body music and Phil Elverum’s take on Mark Kozelek’s confessional style. Meanwhile, a ….
BY LEE ZIMMERMANMuch has been made of the fact that James McMurtry is the offspring of famed novelist Larry McMurtry, but at age 52, with eleven albums behind him, the younger McMurtry has long since shored up his standing. Nevertheless, it’s been six years since his last studio set, nothing less than an eternity in today’s fickle pop culture. It’s fortuitous then that Complicated Game is such an extraordinary achievement, a series of rustic, rambling narratives that demonstrates his father’s story-telling prowess is firmly entrenched in the family genes.