Though The True False Identity is his first album of new material in 14 years, it’s not like T Bone Burnett could be accused of wasting his time. Since 1992’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat, Burnett has established himself as an acclaimed producer: he was the man behind the Grammy-winning soundtrack album O Brother, Where Art Thou?, won another Grammy for Tony Bennett and k.d. lang’s duet album, A Wonderful World, scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for Cold Mountain, oversaw the music production for Walk the Line, and released another half-dozen soundtrack albums on DMZ Records, which he founded with the Coen Brothers. In other words, authenticity and street-cred haven’t been a problem for Burnett, but for over a decade now he’s lacked a recognizable voice of his own. The True False Identity, released simultaneously with a 40 song, career-spanning anthology, seeks to correct that.
Somewhat unfortunately for Burnett, then, is that the most striking thing about Identity is its production. With its stuttering, intricately layered percussion loops—from as many as three separate drummers on most of the 12 tracks—and blistering, distorted electric guitars, the album sounds alive in a way that few modern rock albums do, like it might sprout arms and shake non-believers until they come around to its sound. Beyond his fascinating use of rhythm and distortion, Burnett also incorporates some surprising stylistic flourishes—from the lite-reggae influence that segues into a gospel choir on “Every Time I Feel The Shift” to the smoky, cabaret-noir of “There Would Be Hell to Pay”—that only make the album sound more compelling than many of the best releases of 2006. As a rock record, it recalls a denser, more ambitious version of R.E.M.‘s New Adventures In Hi-Fi.
What gets Burnett into trouble, like New Adventures In Hi-Fi and most other latter-day R.E.M. albums, is that there’s simply too much repetition and too little content in his lyrics. The bulk of Identity chronicles Burnett as he takes stock of social and political trends he finds quite rightly disturbing. As with so many of the artists who have released politically charged albums in 2006, Burnett’s chosen imagery is often lacking. The Caribbean inspired groove of opener “Zombieland,” for example, is one of the album’s many highlights, but the lyrics are a tired lament against media and religion having turned the American public into zombies. George A. Romero isn’t likely to take a whole lot of new insight away from the song. “Fear Country” and “A Poem Of The Evening: Hollywood, Mecca Of The Movies” go on to cover nearly identical territory.
Generally, the songs that aim for outright wit rather than satire fare better, particularly the bluesy, confrontational “Baby, Don’t You Say You Love Me” and “Seven Times Hotter Than Fire.” Further, given Burnett’s speak-singing vocal style, which is likable enough in small doses but becomes monotonous over a full hour’s running time, the sheer number of times he repeats individual lines on most of the album tracks—“When all the ladies heard that he was dead/Some wore orange dresses, and some wore red” comes up countless times in “There Would Be Hell to Pay”—actually makes the album seem longer than it is. That’s a shame, really, because so much of The True False Identity makes good on the lofty expectations of T Bone Burnett. As he routinely does with other artists’ material, Burnett has outdone himself on the album’s production; it’s the material itself that’s a bit underwhelming.