There’s not a better living American songwriter than James McMurtry, whose literary bloodline—son of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove)—makes a damn good case for a genetic predisposition for telling great stories. Combining everything that’s righteous in the story-songs of Steve Earle or Bruce Springsteen, but putting a brutally dark spin on them, McMurtry’s vignettes reveal unvarnished truths about America, circa now. The country’s oldest and most respected leftist weekly, The Nation, has named McMurtry’s classic blue-collar anthem of 2004, “We Can’t Make It Here,” one of the best protest songs ever. No matter what your political perspective is, it’s hard to disagree with that.
McMurtry’s musical stock-in-trade is weaving together acoustic and electric instruments in ways similar to his use of language, employing brash electric-guitar fuzz, distortion, or dissonance to put just the right emphasis on a key word or phrase. “We Can’t Make It Here,” for instance, begins with spiky electric and acoustic guitar notes over a thudding bass line to suggest a raw, emotional prickliness before locking into the repeated descending chord progression that carries such gritty, hyper-real couplets as, “Empty storefronts around the square / There’s a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere.” On Complicated Game, McMurtry puts full emphasis on his warmer acoustic sound, fingerpicking or strumming an old Gibson dreadnought he got from Ani DiFranco, making only the sparest use of electric guitars to provide coloring to a set of songs that are much more personal than political. The shift in McMurtry’s musical focus underscores the vulnerable side of his writing.
In the first few tracks, McMurtry tells of love’s myriad personae: the passionate young marriage that couldn’t possibly survive limos that “smelled like cocaine sweat, cheap cologne, and aftershave” (“You Got to Me”); a more mature blue-collar marriage rooted in perseverance (“Copper Canteen”); a marriage with agreed-upon infidelity that burns holes in one’s self-esteem (“She Loves Me”). The one refrain that ties together all of these complicated games comes over the strummed guitars, keyboards, and drums of “You Got to Me,” which sounds as if it was plucked straight from Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones, fronted by Lou Reed with a Texas drawl. “You got to me,” McMurtry sings, “brought all this emptiness down on top of me / Off on a thousand-dollar odyssey / And I know a thing or two now.”
Elsewhere, McMurtry’s protagonists ques-tion their existence in the world (“Ain’t Got a Place”), contemplate change (“Deaver’s Crossing”), return disillusioned from war (“South Dakota”). One of the standout tracks is the album’s most electric moment, “How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” which finds McMurtry talk-singing the exploits of a wide-eyed crazy who’s “smoking into town like a Molotov cocktail,” with quavering tremolo guitars approximating the protagonist’s sleep-deprived insanity.
Blue-collar struggles remain at the heart of Complicated Game (as they do on all of McMurtry’s albums), but with a warmer, acoustic-based sound, the songwriter is able to bring more of the nuances of personal relationships to the fore. To be sure, McMurtry has played plenty of all-acoustic shows, and acoustic guitars have been at the core of everything he’s ever recorded. But Complicated Game is acoustic first, and that makes all the difference.