If you’ll forgive the gross oversimplification, indie rock over the past 20 years has consisted primarily of two types of artists. The first are the bright and shiny next big things, flashy and exciting, but with high risk of rapid dissolution. The other type of artist is the steady, consistent and often low-key careerist, carving out a life’s work that typically escapes the short-attention hype disposal, but earns a certain respect and admiration over time without ever having landed the glossy cover spread. Will Oldham and Bill Callahan are perfect examples of such accomplished workhorses, as well as Jason Molina, Eric Bachmann and Phil Elverum. And perhaps an even more quietly stunning and consistent still is Nashville’s Lambchop, whose softly breathtaking 11th album Mr. M arrives as the band hits its 20th year together.
Mr. M, to a hefty degree, is built on the stuff that has made all of Lambchop’s albums so uniquely Lambchop, including its status as the band’s 11th album for Merge Records. There are gently plucked guitars, weeping lap steel, gently sweeping strings, and frontman Kurt Wagner’s wobbly baritone, complete with the gradual punctuation of profanity. It’s absolutely gorgeous, of course, but in an almost anachronistic way. The band’s biggest and most frequently referenced influences – Sinatra, Bacharach, ’70s countrypolitan – speak to how little interest Lambchop has ever had in being cool or cutting edge. Yet that almost outright dismissal of contemporary aesthetics is part of what makes them not just genuine, but actually quite easy to love, even if they’re not always so easy to like.
With each of their previous 10 albums, Lambchop has taken great care with their slow burning, lush and lovely chamber pop arrangements, given to a mighty climax when the mood strikes, but still used sparingly. Mr. M, however, seems even more subdued by Lambchop standards, and at turns more sorrowful and elegiac. This reflective and, at times, mournful atmosphere arrives in the aftermath of the death of Vic Chesnutt, a longtime friend and collaborator of Wagner’s. Grief, confusion and heartbreak seep through all of the album’s 11 tracks, though it’s hard to improve upon the cluster of sentiments that Wagner packs into the first song, “If Not I’ll Just Die.” Where it begins with a twinkling, magical string introduction, the magic is soon interrupted as Wagner sweetly, and grumpily sings, “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about,” sounding disoriented but somehow not at odds with the lush backdrop. But his heart grows heavier as the song progresses, Wagner utering, “I’m gonna miss you,” before resigning with the refrain, “Baby, we were born to lose.”
All of the sadness and alienation that arises throughout Mr. M would be a pretty serious bummer to endure, were it not for the absolutely stunning melodies and arrangements that the band has crafted. There’s a particularly dark and sorrowful tone to “2B2,” made gorgeous through its spare and jazzy sound, elegant piano keys and brushed drums twirling around delicate touches of guitar. There’s more giddyup to “Gone Tomorrow,” as well as the concise “The Good Life (Is Wasted)”, a catchy highlight in which Wagner, channeling either his blue collar everyman grit or a nagging sense of guilt, proffers, “The good life is wasted on me.” A pair of instrumental tracks, “Gar” and “Betty’s Overture,” stand as beautifully constructed islands amidst the more emotion-heavy vocal tracks. Yet Wagner’s own idiosyncratic poetry is such a strange and affecting delight that to go without it too long would be a shame, particularly on a track such as “Kind Of,” in which his gentle warble carries some devastating heft with the lines, “Speak to me, love, of your return/ It’s not what you make, but what you earn.”
There have been Lambchop albums with more bells and whistles, and there have also been those albums with more ambitious concepts, and both of those albums might also be 2000′s Nixon. But where that classic offering revealed a more diverse and weirdly darker Lambchop, Mr. M takes a more straightforward approach, sticking to their beautifully arranged and delicate balladry, knowing when to drop a flute solo or an f-bomb. It’s a strange comfort that Lambchop has never given much of a shit about anything other than being the best at making Lambchop records. But more than that, it’s a quality that’s ensured, 20 years down the line, a kind of idiosyncratic beauty in songwriting that only they can really create.
Stream: Lambchop – “Gone Tomorrow”