Are we there yet? Have we reached post-pandemic karma?
Clearly not in literal terms, but for Kurt Wagner – he who is now and has always been the ever evolving, impossible-to-define Lambchop – there may unwittingly be an expiration date on the music which the biggest global crisis in a century has spawned.
Speaking in the run-up to the release of the collective’s sixteenth record, the grizzled 61-year-old questioned the longevity of material written inside this maze of confused feelings, doubting himself whether some of it will be able in hindsight to escape its own gravity.
Ever the contrarian, and following a kind of eat-your-own-dog-food logic, Showtunes explores the reverse idea of sound as timelessness via the themes, if not the format, of how the expanded idea of theatre and performance can lend new aspects to music itself.
In the beginning however, the arrangements had an on/off link to ever being released: in 2019 Wagner accidentally discovered he could turn his guitar work into MIDI piano tracks having never previously recorded using the latter.
With historical line-up fluctuations running their course he then brought in German DJ Twit One, Gayngs founder Ryan Olson and Fog’s Andrew Broder, alongside C.J. Camerieri and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, to augment his newly found penchant for electronics.
What resulted is a collection which has wryly been described as ‘show tunes for people who don’t like show tunes’.
A modernist’s take on South Pacific this isn’t, however. Whilst the Nashvillian is probably best known still for 2000’s Nixon, he’s made it his duty before and since to explore textures and go wherever he pleased.
Opener A Chef’s Kiss has the quality of a recital, the lyrical poetry using the absence of tempo beautifully; ‘A civil war veteran picks a lily/And listens to Pablo Casals/A final note that rings forever/Life will be the death of us all’.
This playfulness in ostensibly sombre tones is reflected in the jokey title of instrumental Papa Was A Rolling Stone Journalist, but with a lush double-bass and stolen phrases it’s a counterpoint to the similarly hard to verse Impossible Meatballs and its jammed-out experimentation.
It’s equally creditable that, this deep into a long career, so much energy for the new is evident, the glitchy whirl and creaking lines of Drop C melding with the chamber operatics of closer The Last Benedict, the laconic couplet, ‘Let’s say that writer was an asshole/Let’s just say that asshole wasn’t me’, a reminder that in no dimension are anyone’s choices given the luxury of perfection.
The undoubted centerpiece though is Fuku, a seven-minute haze of processed trumpet, phantom piano and fractured chords. Wagner’s voice appears after a long prelude, cracked and ethereal haloed in ambience in a song which takes on the shape of happily weeping abstract jazz.
In some respects, on Showtunes Lambchop have continued down a path of splitting their own atoms, a path towards electronica adopted by the likes of The National and most spectacularly Low on the brilliant Double Negative.
Old dogs it seems can be taught new tricks, and learn them handsomely. Nothing can be trapped by its own history though; there’s no greasepaint here, no roar of the crowd.
But in what will eventually be a post-virus world, these things now seem not to matter when we create our own spectacle.