Robert Earl Keen is a creature of habit, retreating to his private cabin (somewhat pretentiously dubbed “The Scriptorium”) every couple of years to crank out a new album’s worth of sturdy Americana songs that draw the same set of comparisons to other acclaimed singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Keen’s a fine songwriter (those comparisons to Van Zandt may be rote by now, but he’s most certainly earned them), but perhaps too predictable as a recording artist. So Keen’s claims that he intended to throw out his usual formula for his latest album, Ready for Confetti, are worth more than just passing attention. While the album is still yet another Americana collection, his decision to write while on the road and to focus more intensely on melody and pop structure makes Ready for Confetti far and away his most accessible and fun album to date.
Unlike so many other Americana artists, Keen has never been one for ponderous, self-serious songwriting. He’s a gifted lyricist, but he’s also not above straight-up sarcasm and humor, and Ready for Confetti casts his snark in cheerful, sing-along melodies and to-the-point, economical narratives. “Black Baldy Stallion,” with its call-and-response backing vocals, casually dresses down a man for his misguided sense of cowboy chivalry, with Keen delivering his lines with a careful balance of empathy and derision “Such a long, long way to ride/Just to hear her say your name.” Producer Lloyd Maines takes a similar approach, giving the song a gentle, western swing backing that plays against the theme of its narrative, and he and Keen use that template to note-perfect effect over the course of the album.
The rollicking acoustic blues of “I Gotta Go” makes for a song that’s all forward momentum, propelled constantly by its driving percussion section toward the narrator’s eventual execution. Standout “Waves on the Ocean” opens with the observation, “There’s a day of reckoning coming/In my heart, I know you’re gonna go,” but Keen slowly unveils a series of natural-disaster metaphors for a failed relationship over an island-flavored shuffle that’s so lackadaisical it sounds like it was lifted from a Zac Brown Band or Kenny Chesney single. The accessibility and studio polish of Maines’s production are departures for Keen, but there’s no arguing against how well they fit with the songwriter’s ironic bent.
Keen’s writing on Ready for Confetti is, more often than not, incredibly sharp. “The Road Goes On and On” plays as an answer to his best-known song, “The Road Goes on Forever,” as Keen spits out a series of insults that become more and more self-directed (”[You’re] the original Liar’s Paradox/And you’ll have to Google that”); it’s every bit as vicious and cutting as it is hilarious. He revisits another of his songs on a re-recorded version of “Paint the Town Beige” from his 1993 album, Bigger Piece of Sky, giving the song a far simpler, less fussy arrangement that allows his extraordinary eye for detail to shine.
Though he’s never been known as a dynamic singer or interpreter, his cover of Todd Snider’s flat-out brilliant “Play a Train Song” is an inspired choice that fits perfectly alongside his own compositions. A bluesy reading of the traditional gospel song “Soul of Man,” which Keen has often performed a cappella in his live shows, closes the record on a note that is genuinely affecting and sincere. In dropping the irony for a moment, Keen yet again toys with expectations and shakes up his formula, and it’s that openness to change that makes Ready for Confetti one of Keen’s finest albums.