It’s been four year since Lambchop’s last outing OH (Ohio) a long gap by the group’s previously prolific standards. Mainman Kurt Wagner was quoted at the time as saying that the ever-evolving project which had occupied the preceding 14 years of his life maybe only had one more good record left in them. So, the obvious question is: is Mr. M that record? Not by my lights, it ain’t. Such a verdict may seem churlish, especially in light of the fact that Mr. M is dedicated to Wagner’s fallen comrade Vic Chestnutt, who died by his own hand on Christmas Day, 2009. This reportedly hit Wagner hard, and could be adduced as one reason for the intervening lack of musical productivity (although Wagner did return to his first creative outlet, painting). The trouble is, as with pretty much all of Wagner’s oblique, cryptic writing, it’s nigh on impossible to work out what he’s on about. No one has ever been able to point up exactly how any song on Lambchop’s 2000 breakthrough ‘concept’ set Nixon is actually about, ya know, Tricky Dicky. Similarly here, unless you read the dedication, you’d be hard pressed to identify any relevance of any of the songs to Mr. Chestnutt’s passing and the subsequent grief.
Musically, this is a stripped back variant on the patented Lambchop chamber pop sound, rather than the big band jamboree of yore. Finger-style acoustic guitar is to the fore, as are lush strings. Much of it sounds like ’60s lounge music, Andy Williams doing Bacharach – although with decidedly un-Hal David-like lyrics. The pace, at least, is funereal. Almost every song is too long and outstays its welcome (if it ever had any) on this consummate and monumental snooze fest.
All of which points to deeper problems in the Wagner/Lambchop camp. Rather than being derailed solely by Vic Chestnutt’s death, maybe they were running out of steam even before that ever occurred. Which prompts some retrospective reassessment of their entire oeuvre, and raises several questions. Are Lambchop now, or have they ever been, anyone’s favourite band? Can anyone name one great Lambchop song? Although explicable in terms of their being loveable eccentrics, in truth their cache has been based around doing one thing very well, but when it doesn’t work the formula can come over as some elaborate situationist joke, an effect not helped by Wagner’s baritone rumble spoken vocals making him sound like Nashville’s answer to Lou Reed. Despite following a discernable trajectory from sometimes groovy country soul to polite chamber pop, this was always an aural approach that was going to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Besides which, hadn’t the country-soul hybrid already been done better by illustrious predecessors? Ray Charles, anyone? What exactly did Lambchop ultimately bring to the table, except a gimmicky pomo wisecrack variation on a classic sound?
Make no mistake, this album will garner respectful, affectionate and even laudatory reviews in the quality papers and specialist magazines. But that will be based on past reputation. A recent Guardian profile of/interview with Wagner concluded thus: ‘How long Lambchop can continue to make music people will want to hear is preying upon Wagner’s mind. “Realistically in five years I will be 60, or close to it. Is that something someone’s gonna want to see or care about?” he wonders. But it’s now 12 years since he gave up laying floors to become a full-time musician, “and now I’m starting to wonder what else I’m fit for at this point in my life, and I honestly can’t think of much else.’ But continuing to make music because you can’t do anything else is a poor reason to continue to make music. Besides which, there are many 60+, and indeed 70+ musicians who are still flourishing. Lambchop need to stop now, or else strike out in a radically new direction. Otherwise it’ll just be the same ol’ same ol’ in ten years’ time.
Again, apologies if these sentiments appear overly harsh, particularly when emanating from someone who has enjoyed Lambchop in concert, and even mores, Kurt Wagner solo. By way of amelioration: the best track here is ‘The Good Life (Is Wasted)’, which manages to get some sort of mild groove going, and has nice production with phasers on the guitars; the best line is: ‘It’s not how much you make/It’s what you earn’ from ‘Kind Of’; and the whole enterprise is almost redeemed by closer ‘Never My Love’, a heartfelt soulful ballad, with something to say about what it means to realise that you are loved. But if Mr. M is to be Lambchop’s swan song, which I sincerely doubt, it’s a pity they just didn’t bow out with this as a killer single.