(Merge; 2006)

By David Greenwald | 18 August 2006

A man enters his private study. Clothed in a robe and loafers, he walks quietly but purposefully into the room. His room. The man is relaxed, allowing his hands to brush against his desk, his chair and finally, his books. Ah, the library. It’s his pride and joy, the achievement of decades. He pours himself a Macallen 18 neat; it’s been a long day. He runs his hand briefly through his graying hair and sighs deeply, acknowledging his aching legs and the years of blackened ash weighing on his lungs. He raises a needle and puts a record on, finally sitting down in his favorite chair – it’s green, and a bit lumpy, but it fits him well. The record begins to spin while the man takes a long sip of his drink. The scotch is smooth on the palate -- that’s what he’d paid for -- but leaves a burn all the way down his throat, and he relishes it, smoky and thick. As the first song plays, strings enter elegantly, floating with grace over plucked guitar chords and a dry, smoky voice. The man smiles, eyes closed, drink firmly in hand. His name is not important; the album, however, could only be Lambchop’s Damaged.

These are not songs for those in the prime of life. Like the finest bottle of cabernet, aging has only refined Lambchop’s reflections. The path from the hormonal panic of the teenage years to the aimless anxieties of the quarter-life is not so distant, but where artists such as the National and Ryan Adams stop at the nocturnal melancholia of one’s 20s, Damaged looks back from farther down the road. It’s an album for interminable days, sleepless nights, haggard mornings; the kind of record best enjoyed with a strong cup of coffee or, perhaps, a more potent potable. Unlike Lambchop’s most recent work (the paired albums Aw C’mon and No You C’mon [2004]), Damaged does away with the instrumentals and electric rock songs. Though the tracks are lengthy, they’re not indulgent but patient, moving at the pace of Frank Sinatra’s September of My Years (1965) rather than the National’s Alligator (2005).

Damaged is nothing if not evocative, recalling the twilight mood of Sinatra’s classic LP and Willie Nelson’s Stardust (1978). Much of the album deals with the minutiae of everyday life; the slowed-down Al Green soul of “I Would’ve Waited Here All Day” examines a narrator’s patience in the face of domestic solitude. “My favorite hour of every day / is the one before you get home / a fleeting sense of anticipation is one that I’ve come to know,” Kurt Wagner sings. It sounds as cautiously optimistic as the songwriter can make it, but the song ends, unresolved, with a pause: “You’ll come around the corner…it’s been a lousy day.” “Paperback Bible” matches lingering guitar arpeggios with lines borrowed from the Tennessee radio show “Swap Shop”: “Yeah, I’d like to find a 27-inch color TV. Has to be non-working, an RCA ‘cause I need the parts.” A piano flourish and Wagner’s delivery sell it, and somehow a simple statement of desire is transformed into one of agonizing grief.

Whether it’s Wagner himself or his narrators who are damaged, the music is remarkably whole. As a recording with seventeen band members, the songs are painstakingly crafted chamber orchestrations, and almost unbearably delicate at times. “Prepared” opens with light jazz piano before waltzing toward something more sinister, recalling the National’s murk with its sudden detours and dissonances. In another life, “A Day Without Glasses” and “Beers Before the Barbican” might have been right at home on a Nelson album with their loosely tangled guitars and soft-focus pedal steels. It’s “Beers Before the Barbican” that throws off the nostalgia with short but propulsive instrumental breaks, where horns and lead guitars fire off into the sky before the song returns to slow ache. Later, “Crackers” picks up the pace and “The Decline of Country and Western Civilization” ends the album with the bang of thudding piano and Wagner’s harshest vocals.

Like our man in the faded green chair, Lambchop has led a long, wearying life. But if the years weigh heavily on Wagner and his band, the fires of experience have only made them better, more articulate musicians. Those looking for the easy fixes of Nashville twang or gritty rock may find this album lacking; however, those in search of restraint and regret and quiet glory will consider it water to parched throats. Damaged may burn a little on the way down, but it’s good to the last drop.