Jeff Bridges’s self-titled album of rootsy, workmanlike country songs is a testament to the actor-turned-singer’s talents in precisely the same way that Crazy Heart was: His performances elevate the project above its reliance on too-familiar genre conventions and predictable narratives and structures. Despite a couple of subtle nods to Crazy Heart‘s source novel, this isn’t an in-character turn as Bad Blake, and Bridges’s personal, heartfelt deliveries of the songs here are what make the album worthwhile.
Collaborating with longtime friend T-Bone Burnett, Bridges immediately settles into a rough-hewn brand of country-rock on his major-label debut. From a production standpoint, the album is right in Burnett’s wheelhouse, and, like most of the producer’s work over the last decade, it’s tasteful to a fault. The flourishes of church piano on “Maybe I Missed the Point” and pedal steel on “Nothing Yet” give texture to the arrangements, but Burnett ultimately brings nothing to the album that he hasn’t previously brought to records by Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, John Mellencamp, and Elton John and Leon Russell. Since actors who try to make the jump to recording artists are always met with healthy skepticism, it’s problematic that Burnett doesn’t help Bridges forge a more distinctive sound that justifies the album as more than a temporary diversion or, worse, a novelty.
Fortunately, Bridges proves more than capable of doing the heavy lifting on his own. He fully inhabits his vocal turns, giving each song a clear point of view and real sense of character. His half-spoken ramble on standout “Slow Boat” is especially effective, highlighting the song’s feeling of displacement. When he mumbles, “All I know is I still float,” over a fuzzy, distorted bassline, he gives the distinct impression that he’s delivering his message from beyond the grave. Stephen Bruton and Gary Nicholson’s “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do” takes Bridges in an entirely different direction, and he gives a laidback performance that brims with optimism. The frayed, weathered edges of Bridges’s tenor lend his performance a lived-in authenticity that adds a depth of experience to the song’s relatively slight narrative.
Bridges’s choices of songs play to his ability to create a rounded character arc, even if the songs themselves aren’t always up to par. “Everything But Love” and “Either Way” are bogged down by clichéd imagery, and Bruton’s “Nothing Yet” strings together an endless series of leaden turns of phrase. Bridges’s own compositions are also a mixed bag. His idiosyncratic word choices on “Falling Short” (“Falling short, I’ve hit the spot/Of the place where I was shot/From the womb of my mother”) and “Tumbling Vine” (“Here is the freedom I have been sent/I’m delighted, I’m Buddhistly bent”) distract from otherwise sincere emotional expressions.
Bridges takes full advantage of the songs when they’re more refined and better edited. He cuts loose on the gently bluesy “Blue Car,” which makes the most of its central vehicular metaphor, and the casual philosophy and references to lighting up in John Goodwin’s “Maybe I Missed the Point” suggest that Bridges is never too far removed from his iconic Dude persona from The Big Lebowski. The ghostly “Slow Boat,” which Bridges co-wrote with Burnett and Thomas Cobb, shares its title with a song referenced in Cobb’s Crazy Heart, but which was unused in the film adaptation. These underplayed self-referential moments add character to the album and allow Bridges to make it a more definitive personal statement.