Retreating from music in the shadow of the suicide of his great friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt, Kurt Wagner effectively disbanded Lambchop in favour of visual art in 2009 and the world had a fair idea we’d hear no more from the band that issued three consecutive near-classic albums in the years that bridged the ’90s and the new millennium. Those baroque, anti-country records were quite a run for any band; the messy, vast and sometimes glorious Thriller in ’97; the deliciously soulful faux concept album Nixon in 2000; the sparse, bleak Is A Woman two years later. These were albums that moved Wagner out of the limiting “alt.country” bracket, onto the bigger stages (they once headlined the Royal Albert Hall at a show where they were sadly overshadowed by their astounding support bill – Vic Chesnutt and Kings Of Convenience), and while they never found success in the US, they nestled in the loving embrace of Euro indie-kids looking for a little more scope to their Nashville skylines.
Mr M then, is the carefully considered culmination of Wagner’s talents – touching on the light, jazzy prettiness he’s so readily capable of on ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’, a sweet little opener about, maybe, the beauty of the everyday and Wagner’s love of musical instruments; his trademark sly-grinned swinging humour shining on ‘The Good Life’ – it’s wasted on him apparently ; the intimate, late-night club singer-isms of ‘Buttons’, steeped in Lambchoppy reminiscence.
As with every Lambchop record you must brave the throwaway, the tongue-in-cheek musical japes that form another facet entirely of Wagner’s songwriting. This time we have the flute-led, wordless TV-theme chamber music of ‘Gar’, the ’70s adult drama instrumental soundtrack of ‘Betty’s Overture’ – a decent exercise in atmospherics but filler nonetheless – and lastly the closer ‘Never MY Love’ which is a Very Good Song Indeed – but just happens to be utter crooner pastiche, Sinatra arrangements and all.
The rest of the album is, fortunately, made up of some of the best songs Wagner has ever put his name to.
‘Gone Tomorrow’ twists an old Sun Kil Moon riff into a cyclical, string-soaked wave of a song filled with allusions to old friend Chesnutt’s obsessions with carnivals and shows – “It was their last night on the continent, the production was shutting down” stutters Wagner before dropping the wonderful line “Wine tastes like sunshine in the basement”. Shouldn’t medals be awarded on the strength of that lyric alone?
‘Nice Without Mercy’ references Chesnutt again, this time in its acoustic strum; a refelective, almost impossibly mournful tune that mirrors the even weightier ‘Kind Of’, which opens with the line “It’s the kind of day you never wake up from” and stumbles, tumbles and falls from there, Wagner’s cracked delivery held together by the lush instrumentation. They are both stunning.
What the album will hopefully be remembered for, however, is the lachrymose twin pairing of ‘2B2’ and the sort-of-title-track ‘Mr Met’: a pair of songs with their heads in one another’s hands, weeping gently against rich string runs, sparse guitar lines and, in the case of the former, a minimalist bass part that cuts straight to the soul, on the latter a guitar/piano line that sounds like dew weighing down a leaf. Seriously. ‘2B2’ is sometimes reminiscent of John Cale’s masterful ‘Dying On The Vine’ but of course never deals directly with its subject – Wagner is still one for surrealism and disconnection – but the delivery of lines like “It was good to talk to you while we were cooking/Sounds like we’re making the same thing” allows us to read emotional meaning into even the strangest of lines.
‘Mr Met’ then, who, on an album entirely dedicated to Vic Chesnutt, we can only guess is meant to represent Mr Chesnutt himself, offers us the ultimate summation of a strange and stunning record, a strange, sudden life: