Rodney Crowell is no stranger to looking in the mirror for creative inspiration, having penned plenty of autobiographical songs before, even a celebrated memoir. Still, his latest album, Close Ties, feels a little different. Crowell isn't simply opening up about his interior monologues here, as the album is more like a curation of his personal history.
For a song cycle that turns around death and mortality, Rodney Crowell's Close Ties is a decidedly jubilant affair. Co-produced by Kim Buie and Jordan Lehning, the introspective work finds the great American songwriter, who has had hits on the country, pop, rock and Americana charts, settling into his place as an elder statesman by surveying the path that brought him here. "Three sheets in the wind, brick shy of a load/ Easy Houston Blues down a nowhere road," Rodney Crowell wails gleefully on "East Houston Blues," Close Ties' freewheeling opener.
T he thousand-yard stare Rodney Crowell's wearing on the cover of Close Ties suggests battle weariness, and much of the material inside surveys the Nashville veteran's past in uncompromising fashion. East Houston Blues addresses his dysfunctional boyhood, I Don't Care Anymore is a driving blues casting a rueful eye on youthful excess, and Forgive Me Annabelle is an apology to an ex-lover ("We both know how far from grace I fell"). Still, Crowell wears his wounds lightly.
One of the most lauded albums in his catalogue, 2001's The Houston Kid, saw Crowell drawing on personal experiences to great effect, and Close Ties is, to all intents and purposes, a second volume of autobiography. It's a stripped-back sound, with vocals pushed to the front of the mix. We're under starter's orders with the dirt-poor childhood woes of East Houston Blues, before a timeline-hopping travelogue that makes several stops at various points in his career.
Rodney Crowell's latest release, Close Ties, is a boisterously serious and audacious attempt to come to terms with his personal past, semi-comfortable present, and uncertain future as an aging artist whose time in the spotlight has left him burnt but not burned out. He wrangles with clearly autobiographical tropes in the first person, ones that seem to be true but are clearly more mythic than accurate, and even others that are obviously false narratives about someone else but with whom he can identify. The Houston kid is now a senior citizen, and (as he puts it), after life knocks one down it doesn't matter whether you get up or stay stretched out on the mat; there is always more left to go before death.
In his song "Nashville 1972," Rodney Crowell looks back on his early days in the music business, meeting heroes and legends such as Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, and Harland Howard, and occasionally making a fool of himself, as men in their early twenties are likely to do. That song closes out Crowell's 2017 album Close Ties, and it's a fitting footnote to an album by an artist who, in his own way, is as much of a hero as any of the artists he cites in the song 45 years later.
"Life is messy," Rodney Crowell sang on the title track to his 1993 album and, nearly a quarter of a century later, he's still singing about it. The Nashville by way of Houston singer-songwriter may not have invented the Americana genre but he has been a prime component of it since his 1979 debut, and even before with his ’70s work, backing and providing songs for Emmylou Harris. On Crowell's first solo release in three years, he reflects on his own life with unflinching, at times raw, honesty.