Kurt Wagner’s longtime group seems intent, over time, to circumscribe country from the inside out. While the earliest material from Lambchop sits comfortably in the wave of alternative country music being made in the mid ’90s, the flurry of material from from starting with 2019’s This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You) has seen yearly missives from the group pursuing all kinds of deconstructive and genre combinatorial approaches to the genre. While at this point we could chronicle in index all the various pursuits toward country music exemplified by this blast of work, the important aspect is less the revelatory spread of elements (which we’ve discussed in prior reviews of their work) and more the impulse toward these pursuits.
There is an overarching sense that Wagner is in some capacity providing a map of country music, the hidden lineage that has seeped into everything from electronic music to hip-hop to jazz to rock music and everything in between. We’ve discussed often here how country became, almost inexplicably, a deeply maligned genre, going from in many ways the fundamental element unifying folk, blues, rock and roll, jazz and even orchestral music in the early 20th century, not to mention a pivotal component of early R&B, to suddenly a persona non grata element of the musical world. Indie music briefly attempted to reconcile with it during the alt country boom, which also saw acknowledgement of the form from slowcore acts like Low and Duster and the now-ignominious Red House Painters, but by the 2000s the eye-rolling had returned and what once would have been alt-country was increasingly labeled indie folk (and, noticeably, became a lot more twee and lightweight in doing).
The Bible feels a far more substantial unit in this exercise than the past three records from the group, which included two LPs of original material and one freewheeling catalog of covers revealing the subliminal pulse of country music lingering across decades of songwriting. The Bible pares down the pursuit, bringing the focus of country back to the atomic elements of piano and voice, feeling at times like a nouveau Randy Newman or early Elton John record in doing so. This is not to say that the vocals are not still punched up with Auto-Tune; that is a prerequisite for this era it seems, albeit a charming one, threading the needle between Justin Vernon’s carrying of the genre in alternative space for a number of years to the sudden critical resurgence of Bruce Hornsby. There are strident elements of jazz, especially the more ballad-driven compositions of the genre, highlighting that undersung relation in country music to those outside of its listenership.
The opener “His Song Is Sung” sets the tone for the majority of the record, featuring a beautiful arrangement of stoic strings and piano setting a scene of marble, sea spray, the long trail of drapes and robes, and a sense of grand departing desire fluttering over the waters, a sentiment often recapitulated over the span of this album. But that’s not to say it is without contour and movement; the second track, for instance, leans into dance music and hip-hop while retaining the same development in lyricism and vocal delivery, feeling like an elaboration, a connection of past and present.
It is the gentle poeticism and prosaic ramble of Wagner’s vocals that unites all of this material, ties it back to the back catalog. He has always been a kind of good-universe version of Mark Kozelek, first in the sense of his more trim and beautiful approach to the same vocal concepts and second by not being a sack of shit, but that sense has only deepened over the years. There is an unshakeable confidence that pervades this record; this is country music, and these musical beds are, at most distance, cousins, if not siblings. His voice is the center of this universe. In another world, these songs are scored by weeping pedal steels and acoustic guitars and fiddles, and we can see the unity at play. But he chooses not to.
Country music isn’t just a small atom in the universe, it is one of the most unspeakably important underlying components to all the forms of popular music, and so why not dapple it across all of history, to write the book in reverse. Admittedly, the two records between This and this one, while interesting, have felt more like experiments teasing out a developmental thrust. This record is the next defining document of the group. It is easy to imagine handing this to someone unfamiliar with the group and having them walk away understanding the power and the magic of this combo. And, to those of us long faithful, it proves there’s still a hell of a lot of gas in the tank. Kurt, if you’re listening: the fusion of house music, contemporary hip-hop, Peter Gabriel-isms and blues/jazz-rock on “Little Black Boxes” is too vital an experiment and too explosive a result to let stay a one-off; pursue this, please.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.