Album Review: Mr. M

★★★★☆

Lambchop emerged almost 20 years ago in 1986, declaring themselves “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band” and meaning it. In the intervening years, the only real constant in the band has been singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner, whose demure delivery lies at the center of almost every song on Mr. M, Lambchop’s first album in four years. Thankfully, his craft remains as sublime as ever.

Dedicated to the musician Vic Chesnutt, a good friend of Wagner’s who committed suicide in 2009, an air of mourning hangs over this album in a way that is more often felt than understood. Lyrically, Wagner remains reflective and impressionistic throughout, giving little away. “Speak now, love, to me of your return/It’s not how much you make, but what you earn,” he murmurs on “Kind Of,” his voice nearly breaking.

In contrast to the abstract nature of the words, the music on Mr. M is lush and full, utilizing piano, string arrangements and spectral background vocals (courtesy of country singer Cortney Tidwell) to round out Wagner and his guitar. There are rarely fewer than four or five things happening simultaneously, which, on a lesser record, could become disorienting.

With Lambchop, it’s nothing less than exhilarating. While rarely rising above a mid-tempo shuffle, these songs still have drive and purpose, often mutating into something else entirely, like the instrumental break about halfway through lead single “Gone Tomorrow.”

This all goes to forming music that sounds like, well, Lambchop. Though still based in the folk and country roots of their hometown, these compositions stray far from the formula, incorporating bits of soul, minimalism and big-band into the mix. Songs are subtle, not showy. Melodies don’t jump out at the listener so much as insinuate themselves, until you find yourself humming “If Not I’ll Just Die” in your free time.

It’s music that comes across as imagistic – perhaps fittingly – as Wagner paints just as often as he writes. A song like “Kind Of” displays this perfectly. While full of lyrics about things leaving and being destroyed, the true power comes across in the arrangement, which combines a persistent beat, melodic strings and quaking vocals to form a snapshot of devastation. Even without the lyrics, anyone listening can tell that all is not right in Lambchop’s world.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Wagner said that he doesn’t believe music can form an important part of any grieving process. To him, Lambchop is a job, though a great one, and he doesn’t believe it necessary as an outlet for mourning his friend. What he has done, then, is craft an album that depicts, stunningly, the process itself – perhaps in the hope that it will resonate with others. Mr. M succeeds beautifully.