25 Years In, Lambchop Still Surprises With 'Mr. M'

[caption id="attachment_27691" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Photo courtesy of Merge Records. Photo: Bill Steber"]Lambchop[/caption]

Nearly every other album released in 2012 will be louder than Lambchop’s masterful Mr. M, but none will announce itself with a bolder statement of intent: “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about.”

It’s not the vulgarity that’s stunning -- not when the closest thing the part-Tennessee/part-Chicago collective have to a signature song is called, “Your Fucking Sunny Day.” Nor is it the way Kurt Wagner delivers that line -- he doesn’t yell or scream or even raise his voice. Like most of Mr. M, it’s the substance of the statement that’s backed by their modus operandi. Lambchop is aware of their existence on the periphery of your attention. After all, they’ve namedropped both Pitchfork and minuscule Grand Ol’ Opry singer Little Jimmy Dickens as indicators of where they see themselves in our cultural spectrum (ignored by the former, relating to the latter). But this isn’t “Losing My Edge,” dwelling on your own obsolescence like it’s a vital life force. Mr. M and Lambchop are about happily letting the world pass you by.

"Wagner and the band can pleasantly surprise you with their weirdness, revelations similar to finding out your grandpa actually smokes weed in his spare time. "

This is the band’s best album in a decade, whatever that means for a band that’s always been on the periphery. The closest Lambchop got to a “moment” was with 2000’s concept-wacky Nixon but its Nashville country-via-Philly soul orchestration doesn’t make it stand out too much from Lambchop’s other records. And a surprising number of people had the same experience with it as I did, one that’s almost as antiquated and arcane as anything Wagner sings about -- either we tortuously tried to download it song by song off Napster or trekked over to a record store that possibly didn’t even carry it. Either way, Lambchop maintained a very devoted and very small cult of followers post-Nixon. The rest of us decided it “wasn’t our thing.”

I can’t help but feel like I’m giving Lambchop a second Nixon-era audition. While Mr. M never demands patience, it only rewards listeners who have either invested a good deal of time or money into it. The songs cruise luxuriously, maybe three minutes worth of lyrics and chord changes allowed to slack towards five and more. The raw stylistic elements -- countrypolitan, Burt Bacharach, soul music at its most mellow -- never even had an “anti-cool” moment. But Wagner and the band can pleasantly surprise you with their weirdness, revelations similar to finding out your grandpa actually smokes weed in his spare time. “Gone Tomorrow” is the closest thing Mr. M has to a single, riding a melody, as sturdy as oak, before it spends its last three minutes in tamboura-laced haze, while the parenthetical aside on the chorus of “The Good Life” (“is wasted on me”) recalls the humored insouciance of Willie or Waylon in their cosmic cowboy guise.

Point being that even with its library-quiet production, Mr. M is in no way a lecture. In fact, its reservoir of quotables is nearly bottomless and Wagner seems to know that, giving every little aside time to sink in -- similar to the long-tenured and trend-averse Bill Callahan, Wagner cuts against the idea that the most verbose lyricists are the most astute. “Buttons” is one of the most devastating character sketches since “Ether,” all the more affecting for how Wagner’s narrator doesn’t quite grasp his own capacity for insensitivity. “I used to know your girlfriend/ back when you had a girlfriend” is indicative of the casual meanness that unwittingly peppers our interactions with others, and he continues, “She was nice and you were not/ but I was the big prick back then too.” Somehow, you feel for both Wagner and the sadsack even though both appear beyond help. It could be him identifying with a fellow loner and loser, yet many of Mr. M’s highlights are domestic. Coffee makers and used software are symbols of personal interactions writ large, while in a typically killer line from “2B2”, Wagner moans how otherwise content couple “Took down the Christmas lights … February 31st.” What he means is up for debate, but it just sounds like an emotional death-blow without being so coarse about it.

But yes, it is wholly antisocial music -- not so much in that it would clear a room or scare off your parents. Your parents might even like it. But Mr. M requires patience, undivided attention and almost certainly headphones. Lambchop’s roster has at times expanded to beyond a dozen, yet its demand for solitude has me thinking of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. That record in large part endures due to its origin story, which is so ingrained in our consciousness that it hardly bears repeating for factual purposes. We all could potentially picture ourselves in the same situation, leaving behind our heartbreaks and day jobs for a pilgrimage meant to berth the true art we all might be capable of. There’s a similar archetype lurking within the appeal of Lambchop. When I listen to Mr. M, I hear the Southern eccentric that never quite lets on the extent of his intelligence, with enough awareness to see himself on the margins, enough self-deprecation to see why all the guys in New York and Los Angeles look down on him, but with enough self-assurance to be thankful to they’re not a part of what the fuck they talk about.

Lambchop's Mr. M is out now via Merge Records.