James McMurtry hasn’t released an album since 2008, way back when singing protest songs about Dick Cheney and Hurricane Katrina was the thing. And sing about them he did, on Just Us Kids, which smoked with snorting Telecaster riffs and sharp, bitter commentary. By comparison, McMurtry sounds ruminative, world-weary, and just plain tired on his new album, Complicated Game, intoning mostly slow, acoustic songs in a deadpan drawl that at times sounds more like sighing than singing. This is the kind of album where a line like “At the end of the rope/There’s a little more rope most times” passes for optimism.
Complicated Game’s downbeat vibe has little to do with politics. McMurtry has often been pigeonholed as a political songwriter, but protest songs have never been his bread and butter. Rather, like his father, novelist Larry McMurtry, he’s a storyteller with a literary knack for using detail and narrative to draw complex, relatable characters, and his storytelling finesse has never been more evident than it is here.
Not that Complicated Game isn’t abundant in musical acumen. McMurtry is a solid guitarist in his own right, and producer C.C. Adcock recruited some crack musicians to back him, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, former Allman Brother Derek Trucks, and banjo hotshot Danny Barnes. But the opportunity for those folks to really cut loose is confined largely to lead single “How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” which, with its caustic spitfire vocals and snaky electric guitar licks, is the only song on the album that could be legitimately classified as a “rocker.” The rest of the songs put the focus right where it should be: McMurtry’s voice and lyrics.
Complicated Game starts off with its most vivid vignette, “Copper Canteen.” The opening descending arpeggios set the album’s contemplative mood effectively, but it’s McMurtry’s couplets that do the heavy lifting. He employs a few small details to acquaint the listener with the setting: References to ice fishing for walleye and perch place the song clearly in the rural upper Midwest, “where the pickings are thin and there’s not much to do.” The song captures a boredom, even a dread, underlying the stillness and monotony of the characters’ lives. The narrator tells his wife to “hang onto your rosary beads/And leave me to my mischievous deeds” (which may or may not include sleeping with “the bridge tender’s widow”), and then “wake[s] up at night in the grip of a fright,” wondering desperately if he’s coping with the hand he was dealt as best he could.
Following that opener, McMurtry steps back from this heady, narrative storytelling style for the remainder of the album’s first half, adopting a more personal songwriting mode. Compared to the album’s heavier second half, this stretch of songs feels like a lull at times, especially during “She Loves Me,” which features a hokey male choir. But as always, McMurtry’s ability to turn a phrase keeps the listener invested through the endearing old-guy sentimentality found in the nostalgia trip “You Got to Me” and the wizened romanticism of “These Things I’ve Come to Know.” Meanwhile, the rhythmic drive of “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” and the concise, sing-along chorus of “Ain’t Got a Place” (clearly modeled after, and a worthy successor to, Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”) endow the album with some stylistic diversity.
Complicated Game doesn’t hit its peak until two of its last songs: “South Dakota” and “Long Island Sound.” The geographic and cultural discordance of the locales that gave these songs their titles should be noted, since if you take Mike Huckabee’s word for it, they might as well be on two different planets. But McMurtry is a good enough writer to capture life in both places authentically. “South Dakota” focuses on a young war vet returning home to the titular state to find a life and a future so bleak that he prefers a war zone: “I won’t get nothing here but broke and older/I might as well re-up again.” McMurtry doesn’t condescend to the song’s humble ranchers; rather, he somberly reflects on the precariousness of a lifestyle that can plunge its adherents into destitution as quickly as it takes a blizzard to hit and kill all the horses. The family in “Long Island Sound”—transplants from Tulsa who left the heartland for New York City instead of Kabul—is much better off. McMurtry plays it like an Irish drinking song—lilting button accordion, gang chorus vocal, and all—as the narrator proposes a proud toast: “Here’s to you, strangers/The Mets and the Rangers/Long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.” But as he brags about how his kids “Drop all their R’s like the islanders do,” he also warily alludes to artifacts and memories he sometimes happens to stumble across from his life back in Oklahoma: “the shotgun I got when I was nine” locked away in the attic; the smell of “tobacco from Granddaddy’s pipe”; “a couple old picks and a 20-gauge shotshell left from a dove hunt a couple years back” in the glove box. Are they gladly forgotten or are they sadly fading away? It’s a thought-provoking question indicative of the narrative richness of McMurtry’s songs.