Rodney Crowell has been on quite a run of late, recording three straight albums that rank among the strongest, smartest country records of the decade. So to say that his latest, Sex and Gasoline, isn’t quite up to the level of its predecessors is to say that it’s merely one of the strongest, smartest country albums of the year. Its opening three tracks, however, actually suggest that it will unfold as Crowell’s fourth straight masterpiece. The title track, a nervy, acoustic blues number, is an angry treatise on modern society that tackles politics and pop culture with biting turns of phrase, while “Moving Work of Art” and “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design” find Crowell turning his critical eye inward, attempting to apply the moral code set forth in the title track to himself by asking if he’s “a half-decent man.” Crowell has been among the headiest artists in Nashville for three decades, but this opening trifecta of songs finds him at his sharpest and his most high-minded. That the remainder of the album is comparatively predictable and repeats many of the same themes more didactically, then, makes Gasoline a bit of a letdown. With lines that are often too clever by half and which, more problematically, telegraph most of their rhymes—one doesn’t need any kind of psychic ability to fill in the latter half of each couplet on “I Want You #35”—and with songs “Who Do You Trust” and “Closer to Heaven” relying on the same brand of free-associative poetry to make essentially the same point, much of the album feels overwritten and internally redundant. That isn’t to say that the album isn’t without its charms (Crowell is a more convincing, culture-savvy wiseass than most singer-songwriters half his age), just that it only approaches the same heights of its glorious opening run when it feels as though Crowell isn’t trying quite so hard. Still, even at its most strident, Sex and Gasoline is topical and fiercely intelligent in a way that few modern country albums are.
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