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. Though it doesn't tell a linear story, Close Ties is conceptual in nature, its songs looking back on key milestones from throughout Crowell's life and career: “Life Without Susanna” bears witness to the passing of Susanna Clark, a longtime friend and mentor, and “East Houston Blues” is a tale of youthful rabble-rousing, a wicked counterpoint to the older-and-wiser tone struck in later songs.
Crowell understands that a memoir can encompass any number of topics—relationships, career, deaths, and departures—but that it's always fundamentally about memory itself. That's critical on a song like “It Ain't Over Yet,” which leverages its perspective to make it one of the sharpest, funniest, and most affecting songs Crowell has ever written. It's a song about struggle and triumph, but it's also about second chances. Crowell looks back to the days when he was riding high on the mainstream country charts and had a high-profile romance with Rosanne Cash. Then come the body blows, the setbacks, the defeats; he had everything, he tells us, and he let it get away. But John Paul White, playing the role of a fellow traveler, reminds him that it ain't over 'til it's over: “You can get up off the mat/Or you can lay there 'til you die,” he offers. And then Cash herself shows up—a voice of forgiveness, acceptance, and hope. Her very presence here is meaningful—proof enough that some wounds can heal, or at least that empathy and understanding is attainable.
Close Ties tells the story of a life, and it does so unflinchingly.
The rest of the album's mood isn't always so reflective. “East Houston Blues” transports Crowell back to his days of youthful indiscretion; he depicts himself as “a worried man on a losing streak,” and suggests he was born to a life of trouble. “I Don't Care Anymore,” meanwhile, comes from a place of hopelessness and nihilism—the flipside of the coin from “It Ain't Over Yet,” choosing to revel in mistakes rather than learn from them.
All of this comes in the context of Crowell's sharpest, strongest set of music in years—possibly ever. The exquisite “Forgive Me Annabelle” is a throwback to the early-1970s singer-songwriter era, complete with cinematic string flourishes to make the track feel larger than life. That supple craft grounds the album's casual eclecticism and virtuosity. “Reckless” is razor-sharp, its delicacy contrasting with the rough-and-tumble swagger of “Storm Warning.” The sound of each song sets the stage for the lyrics themselves, like how “It Ain't Over Yet” is set to a spindly but propulsive beat—as if to mirror Crowell's “rickety ol' legs” as well as his forward motion. “You can't take for granted/None of this shit,” he says—and he takes his own advice.
Close Ties tells the story of a life, and it does so unflinchingly. There's gratitude in the moments of triumph, grace in the stories of defeat, and wisdom born from each misstep along the way. Crowell gives these songs the color they deserve, and both as a writer and a singer he approaches them with total honesty. The album is a reckoning with his own prickly memory, and it's a bounty of weathered emotion and hard-won wisdom.