[Editor's note: The following piece appears in No Depression #76, the first in a new "bookazine" series edited by No Depression and published by University of Texas Press.]
Has an artist ever enjoyed being unshackled from expectations more than Rodney Crowell? It has been more than a decade since he left his hitmaking days in Nashville behind – and/or since they left him. After his prolific run for Columbia Records ended not in a blaze of glory but amid the foul smoke of declining sales, compromised standards and hard self-criticism, he took time to ponder his role an artist, to question his methods, and to plot his return. When he resurfaced, his conviction recharged and his ambition newly lit, he staged a second act that would impress F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Mixing autobiography and fiction on The Houston Kid (2001), Crowell reflected on the pain and barefoot glory of his boyhood – one darkened by the beatings his mother took from his alcoholic father, among other crimes, and transformed by Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”. On Fate’s Right Hand (2003), he stared into middle age to confront his shortcomings and count his blessings, doing both so openly that you could almost feel his personal growth rubbing off on you. On The Outsider (2005), it was time for Crowell to go outward, via blistering, satiric commentaries on greed, hypocrisy, and the war-making politicians who “don’t give one whit about the man on the street with his back to the wall.”
To embrace these recordings was not to deny the indelibility of early Crowell classics such as “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Til I Gain Control Again”, or the appeal of the pop-infused songcraft with which he and his then-wife Rosanne Cash ruled the new country roost in the 1980s. It was to recognize how powerfully the added layers of experience had served his unquenchable poet’s desire to squeeze meaning from life – and to keep up with it, to try to help change it for the better.
Now comes Sex & Gasoline, and Crowell is stretching yet again. As you might guess from the title, he’s not finished railing at slick politicians, sleaze merchants, and fresher signs of our declining civilization. This will give pause to critics who have detected self-righteousness in his rants, though it’s hard to imagine anyone holding that against him when he takes aim at this culture’s sexualization and commodification of young girls.
But working with producer Joe Henry, ambient rocker par excellence, Crowell mostly turns down his emotional thermostat to draw us into nuanced narratives that reflect his concerns — his states of being — as a husband, a lover, a father of daughters, a feminist. None of the songs have the buoyant melodic lift of “Earthbound” (from Fate’s Right Hand) or the punch and groove of the title track to The Outsider. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some striking, and surprising, hooks. And there may be more going on under the surface – musically as well as thematically, thanks to bassist David Piltch’s suggestive strokes and drummer Jay Bellerose’s artful textures – than on anything Crowell has done before.
There’s no lack of immediacy on Sex & Gasoline, a smart, live-in-the-studio production that puts Crowell’s vocals up-front and without cushion while capturing surrounding details with vibrant clarity. “Who Do You Trust”, featuring guitarist Doyle Bramhall III, catches Crowell in carousing blues-rock mode. But the album is more defined by songs such as “I’ve Done Everything I Can”, a one-of-a-kind duet on which Crowell and Henry ruminate affectingly on fatherhood, on the agony of letting go. It’s not often that two artists with their blend of passion and intellect share this kind of spotlight.
“Closer To Heaven”, a kind of sequel to “Earthbound” in cataloguing things that make life worth living (as a bonus, Crowell lists things he has no use for, including sushi and golf), is an uplifting closing statement. Backed by gospel-style voices, he tells us he has no wish to be famous, “only to be happy wherever I am.” If anyone has a third act in him, judging by the place he is now, it’s Crowell. While so many artists of his generation are on the ground and heading for home, he’s still years away from learning how to land.