If you mention the name James McMurtry to anyone in the Americana world, they’re likely to respond with nothing but high praise. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics,” says Jason Isbell of the singer-songwriter. John Melloncamp has said, “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime.” And even author Stephen King has said, “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” With that kind of praise, you can imagine that expectations are high with each album release from McMurtry. And with his newest album, Complicated Game, being his first release in six years, James McMurtry doesn’t disappoint.
Complicated Game is a songwriter’s album. The production in each song has slight variations, but a majority of the album is met with simple acoustic guitar notes and light drum beats. The driving force of the album is the lyrics and stories that McMurtry has penned. “Copper Canteen” is one of a few songs that speak to the hardworking, little man. Times are rough in the small town, money is tight, and life’s unavoidable circle of old ones dying and new ones being born add to the weight of mom and pop shops closing up because of the invading big box stores. But there’s still time to enjoy the small offerings of life, like getting in that last hunt before the season ends, or drinks with friends at the local pub.
“You Got to Me” is a love song about a wedding. McMurtry reminisces of the two of them when they first started out while providing vivid details of the wedding and party around them. The song documents the maturing process of growing from a single, reckless man to a married, more subdued husband, and McMurtry himself may not quite understand what it all means yet. “I Ain’t Got a Place” is about a traveller. A drifter roaming from town to town, be it a musician or just a nomad, unsatisfied with each place he stays. McMurtry does a great job painting a poignant picture on this track.
“She Loves Me” deals, again, with a travelling man. In one particular town, he has a woman who loves him. Their relationship isn’t monogamous, and they’ll both do as they please while he’s away. However, once he’s back in town, she makes him top priority for her affections. There’s a bit of arrogance in the way McMurtry sings this song, and it’s fitting. “How’m I Gonna Find You Know” is a rocking journey. This man is looking for a woman he’s infatuated with. She’s a badass bartender, and he’s down on his luck with a beat up old car and broken cell phone. This man is hot and ready and made preparations for a passionate night, but after running late, he can’t find, but continues to look. From the banjo to McMurtry rattling off-line after line of great, hilarious details of a night going from bad to worse, this song just rocks, certainly making it an album highlight.
“These Things I’ve Come to Know” is another semi-love song. McMurtry sings of the things he’s learned about the woman he loves. These things seem to be more and more impressive to McMurtry as the song progresses. In “Deaver’s Crossing” McMurtry tells the fictional story of a hitchhiking man who’s hard life got even harder as his farm land was taken to make room for a national park. The story was influenced by Shenandoah National Park’s inception over old farm land, one of which was actually owned by a family named Deaver. McMurtry simply tells a heartbreaking story filling in the blanks himself.
In “Carlisle’s Haul,” James McMurtry tells an epic story of a struggling fisherman. The fisherman and couple buddies illegally fish and try to catch enough to feed themselves and sell to the market for some much-needed cash, all while trying to avoid the law. The seven-minute saga is excellent, fantastic storytelling. “Forgotten Coast” is a simpler, more classic country tune. McMurtry simply moves down to an old coastal town, leaving behind his life and love to fish, sit on a front porch and enjoy an uncomplicated life in solitude. “South Dakota” may be the most heartbreaking song of the collection. A soldier returns to his small South Dakota home after being discharged. But the struggles of the farm life aren’t glamorous: cows are killed by a blizzard, their hides won’t sell much, and there’s no oil or gas to drill for to get some cash. The soldier entertains the idea of re-upping for the army because at home “you won’t get nothing here but broke and older.”
“Long Island Sound” is about a man who moves to the big city to start a new life. As the years have gone by, the hustle and bustle of the big apple and family responsibilities take over, leaving times of growing up in a simple, small town nothing but a distant memory. It’s a memory McMurtry reflects on with a beautiful Celtic-inspired production and an easy sing-along chorus. “Cutter” ends the album with another heartbreaking, sorrowful tune. It’s a biting song that doesn’t beat around the bush. There are demons, painful memories, loneliness haunting this man, and the red ridges from cuts on an arm are the only physical sign of his emotional pains.
James McMurtry can write one hell of a story. The attention to detail he puts in every song is excellent. Old heartbreak songs, love songs, the everyman struggles of making ends meet, all these topics are explored in fresh, innovating ways. There aren’t many songwriters in music like McMurtry. While the production may not necessarily change much between songs, McMurtry’s detailed words and phrases along with the slight rasp of his voice help each song earn a place on the album. Complicated Game is a great songwriting offer from James McMurtry.