|T Bone Burnett - The True False Identity|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by K L Poore|
|Saturday, 01 July 2006|
release year: 2006
reviewed by: K L Poore
The act of making music, or writing, or any of those other tortures, is actually an example of reinvention on a Frankenstein level. You take everything you’ve learned, whether it’s producing Los Lobos, compiling music for “The Big Lebowski” or writing songs with Elvis Costello, and you mix it into a big ol’ creative vat. You stir it around, zap in a little electricity, maybe even squeeze in a few of your own tears, and poof! The True False Identity is born. Or …
The True False Identity is the Faustian tale of a man rediscovering himself. After 14 years of success as a producer, songwriter and all-around man-in-demand, our hero, believing he’s lost his musical soul, decides that it’s time to confront his demons and return to that hell known as “being a recording artist.” He ends up doing much more than retrieving his soul. He finds his way to the musical promised land.
As you probably gather, in listening to T Bone Burnett’s The True False Identity, I was struck not only by its musicality but by its wildly literate nature. He might be channeling Shelley, or Dante, or any one of a number of classic authors, but after a little consideration, I thought it felt much more like a modern novel. Perhaps in the William S. Burroughs “Cut Up and Fold In” school. Lines seem to drop from nowhere. A chorus may seem unrelated to the verse. Words are repeated until the point is driven home, even if you’re not immediately sure what point he’s trying to make. This may sound a bit scattered, and perhaps not for everybody, but that is absolutely not the case. These songs/tales are remarkable in their ability to fill you with emotions that you might not completely understand, and with thoughts that seem incongruous to the words he’s singing. In my imagination I envisioned Burnett clipping the best bits from large notebooks, flinging them into the air and watching them float down as incredible songs filled with humor, passion and power. If The True False Identity were a fantasy novel, you’d be amazed at Burnett’s ability to tame the three-headed beast: lyrics, music and production.
But it’s also a cautionary tale wherein Burnett sounds like a man truly concerned with the state of our being, as well as the co-opting of his beliefs. The True False Identity rumbles into the world with “Zombieland,” a song awash in shaking bones percussion and a reggae beat; it illustrates that his message is a serious one, and it’s for everyone, from the “black mass media” to the machines that “Always do just what you tell them to do/We’re gonna stomp that devil beat in Zombieland.” With sparse instrumentation that is spatially well-defined in the mix, he places you into the epicenter of an electric voodoo ceremony. It’s as frightening as being dropped into the middle of a Stephen King novel, and foreshadows the music to follow.
I really can’t recall another release that has so many great lines tossed towards you in such a casual manner. It’s as if Burnett needed the 14 years since The Criminal Under My Own Hat to fit so many great ideas into a musical form; that he’s able to accomplish this at such a high level would be remarkable in a 300-page novel. “Someone stole my identity,” he sings in “Hollywood Mecca of the Movies,” “and I feel sorry for them” may be the funniest line since Ray Davies sang “… and so is Lola.” And when he proclaims “Cowboy with no cattle, warrior with no war/They don’t make impostors like John Wayne anymore” in “Fear Country,” one of The True False Identity’s more frightening moments, I know who he’s talking about, but in its context, it becomes much more universal and, in turn, thought- provoking. When he follows that up by repeating, “This is fear country,” we’re all included in the mess.
As with “Fear Country,” many of the tales in this collection are political in nature. In “Palestine Texas” he drops a Vegas roll call, from Frank and Dean to Peter and Shecky, and leads you to think you’re deep inside a Spillane-like pulp fiction … but it turns out to be a red herring. He’s herded everyone into the room so that he can explain to you “who done it.” He sings, “Where is this faith that you profess/That led to this colossal mess,” and “When you crawl out of this self delusion/You’re going to need a soul transfusion.” It’s no longer a mystery. He’s pointing out the minimal differences between the superficiality of the ‘50s Rat Pack Vegas image and “Presidents who come and go,” and like every great writer he’s not telling you something, he’s giving you all the information you’ll need in order to reach his conclusion.
And it continues that way throughout The True False Identity. He’ll draw you into his world where love, he feels, is “Seven Times Hotter Than Fire,” but he won’t tell you if he’s singing of romantic love, or religious love, or even obsessive love. It’s the pounding garage rock beat that bangs the message home much more clearly than you’ll find in any romance novel. Or he’ll weave a story, as he does on “Every Time I Feel the Shift,” that encapsulates the conflicts of modern religion vs. faith. “If we were to pass an Eleventh Commandment/In 20 years people would be shocked/To learn that there had once been only Ten/And wouldn’t care if there had been.” With a deep groove bass line and sparse skanking guitar parts, it’s a song you can imagine Willie Dixon writing with Jack Kerouac. The beauty of The True False Identity is that it’s like a collection of riddles where you’re not certain there are answers, but you want to go ahead and try to find out anyway.
“I’m Going on a Long Journey, Never to Return” is stunning in the way it equates the end of a relationship with death. Against a swinging beat and twangy guitars, he writes, and sings, about alienation and rootlessness in a way that would make both Tennessee Williams and Johnny Cash proud. “I’ve been getting over you since the day we met/Must we live in anger and shame?/Why must we always try to place the blame?” The verses instantly brought to mind to the Ralph Stanley song “O Death” that Burnett produced on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. Even though it’s a jangling country rock tune, I felt the darkness breathing over me.
In what is the most radical (in every sense of the word) cut, “Blinded by the Darkness,” Burnett rails against the legislation of morality and the blending of secular and religious thought. “If sin were dealt with by the laws of man/ Everybody would be in jail for life,” he sings, and I pause to wonder who is going to end up condemning these thoughts. It’s a noisy song that bangs and clangs along like industrial music with lyrics you can understand. The sound is as thick, and dense, as the subject matter. In its most telling line, he says, “Maybe I should save my breath, but this lunacy is bound to fail.” Amen, brother.
While listening to the last cut, “Shaken Rattled and Rolled,” with its beautiful waltz-time lilt, I finally understood what it is about The True False Identity that makes it stand out. I realized that it wasn’t just a modern novel, or Shelley’s horror classic, or even a Steinbeckian tale of redemption -- it’s all of those things. It’s more like a library of classics instead of a singular novel. It’s a rhythmically driven, eclectically sublime collection of stories that, I’m certain, gives Joseph Henry T Bone Burnett the satisfaction he was looking for when he set out, as he says, “to erase the nonexistent line between comedy and tragedy.” And we get the satisfaction of an incredible collection of songs from an artist who’s been away far too long, on a CD that will make you want to revisit it from the beginning as soon as the last page is turned.
Even though I am sure every review mentions that this is Burnett’s first release in 14 years, I feel compelled to point out that it’s obvious that it has been time well spent. Looking beyond the accolades, his abilities as a producer have grown immensely during that time. On this release, the production can be sparse, dense and/or atmospheric, depending on what is needed for the individual song. At the same time it is inventive, cohesive and makes for interesting and thought-provoking listening. It sounds fantastic in my car and even better in headphones. I broke out my Sonys (closed) that I use for recording and was captivated enough by The True False Identity that I sat through two complete listenings before returning to the real world. Burnett says that he’s been experimenting with the production style he used for this CD for a long time. “All instruments are drums, really,” he says. “Some have strings attached, some you blow into, but they are all resonating chambers that you attack in some way. I wanted to put listeners in the middle of this new sound, to experience it almost in 3D.” I’d say it was a very successful experiment. It is a great example of an artist with a vision of American music. (The iTunes download comes with three additional songs, including a live version of “River Of Love.”)