Rodney Crowell's new album Fate's Right Hand explores personal landscapes similar to those he first examined in his 2002 release The Houston Kid, but the final results are less musically satisfying. Perhaps the differences between this new album and his last release stem from his change of residence. Living in Los Angeles encourages the sort of self-absorbed navel-gazing that never happens in Texas or Nashville. It's the difference between admitting your failures and dwelling on them.
Rodney Crowell has long been an exceptionally talented tunesmith. His early work produced a string of successful and influential albums for Columbia in the ‘80's. His early music combined equal does of country and rock in a way that revitalized contemporary country music. Without Rodney Crowell I seriously doubt that "Hot Country Radio" would exist today. By the late 80's Crowell's string of mega hits ceased and his label dropped him in a manner that has become all too common in the shark-infested waters of Nashville's music scene. After three albums co-produced by Tony Brown on MCA, Crowell left to pursue a more personal musical vision. His 2001 release on Sugarhill Records, The Houston Kid, proved that he could make intensely personal music that still appealed to his fans. Critics like myself were also smitten by his combination of infectious melody lines and frank lyrics.
While Fate's Right Hand shares many of the best traits of The Houston Kid, including catchy melodies and clever musical hooks and bridges, its lyrics are less involving. Instead of stories, Fate's Right Hand delivers sermons. The title song comes off like a country rap song, complete with jivy X-rated lyrics. Another tune, "Time To Go Inward" describes Crowell's difficulty facing himself across a meditation mat. Don't get me wrong, not a single song on Fate's Right Hand is bad, but none of the tunes here have the accessibility or universality of the material on The Houston Kid. Everyone enjoys hearing stories, even sad ones, but few of us feel comfortable being subjected to personal confessions. It's the difference between a late night campfire conversation and a twelve-step meeting.
Fate's Right Hand features impeccable musicianship from the likes of Jerry Douglas on dobro, John Jorgenson on mandolin and electric guitar, Steuart Smith on electric guitar and organ, Pat Buchanan and Will Kimbrough on electric guitar, Bela Fleck on banjo, and John Cowen, Carl Jackson, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Marcia Ramirez on background vocals. Crowell shared production credits with recording engineer Pete Coleman, who worked with Crowell on The Houston Kid. The final sonic results have a similar perspective, honest, yet beautiful sounding.
While I can't fault the music on Rodney Crowell's latest offering, I think that Fate's Right Hand will be a more difficult album for most people to enjoy than The Houston Kid. Perhaps at the end of Rodney Crowell's period of introspection he will once more examine the outer world with the same candor he brings to his internal landscape. Here's hoping, anyway.