One of Americana’s most tenacious and clear-eyed writers.
Rodney Crowell has issued a long string of records that highlight the stark poetry of his songwriting. Close Ties, his first solo release since 2014’s Tarpaper Sky, offers more of the same, finding the veteran Texas-born troubadour in fine form across material that examines some of life’s most painful and pleasure-filled moments. Crowell’s best material has always succeeded on a thin margin of brilliance. The songs don’t fly because of exaggerated arrangements or because Crowell can over-emote with his vocals; they live and die on their own terms.
His home state has never been far from his mind and it crops up again on the opening “East Houston Blues,” where his voice takes center stage, chronicling a weary soul who’s fallen on hard times. His heart still burns with just enough anger to make it through and to tell us that the fight ain’t over yet. Life, Crowell reminds us again and again here, is a complicated proposition. Witness his rumination on his friendship with the departed Susanna Clark, wife and muse of Guy, close friend to Crowell and a circle of other brilliant tunesmiths. She was a formidable songwriter herself who commanded deep respect. Her later life, though, appears to have served as a source of frustration to those closest to her. Crowell opens his ballad of their friendship with the assertion that her decline began when Townes Van Zandt died. Clark, Crowell sings, spiraled into addiction and depression that left those who loved her feeling helpless and angry, incapable of reeling her back from the abyss. Though the piece veers close to the painfully personal, it’s the outline of the emotions, the shared pain we’ve all experienced with such souls, that helps the song land in the win column.
Both Clarks reappear in the record’s closing track, “Nashville 1972,” a memoir of the period when a new brand of songwriters came to Music City and changed the course of country music. The characters he paints in those perfectly crafted verses are sometimes famous and sometimes unknown or half-remembered even by Crowell himself. We soon realize that though one of the man’s greatest gifts has long been writing songs for others, this is one that will always remain his own. That’s a common thread here: An artist writing for himself, telling the stories that have to come out one way or another. Rather than serving to alienate, those personal touches make the material more fascinating, adding further dimension to a deep, rich body of work that’s filled with more treasures than most find in an entire career.
There are lesser moments, though: “Storm Warning” finds its drama not in the well-crafted words and chords but in a musical setting that cracks and claps loudly enough that the author’s voice becomes overwhelmed in the mix. The track leaves the tune so deeply at odds with its companions that you soon wish it would’ve been relegated to the vault. “I’m Tied to Ya,” a collaboration with Sheryl Crow will likely win over new converts and alienate some of the faithful. Crow, who has demonstrated talent for singing in a variety of settings, seems misplaced here, at odds with a tune that carries a little too much gloss for its rugged themes.
Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining about “Forgive Me Annabelle,” as gorgeous and honest a love song as Crowell has ever rendered. The particulars of heartache become ours either because they’re familiar or because we can’t help but feel pangs of empathy for someone who could pour out their heart in a manner so unfiltered and true.
Close Ties is ultimately a record made better by its most unadorned moments, including “I Don’t Care Anymore” and “Reckless,” but taken as a whole, it’s exactly the kind of powerful release we’ve come to expect from Crowell, one that further solidifies his reputation as one of Americana’s most tenacious and clear-eyed writers.