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Lambchop, ‘Mr. M’ (Merge)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Label: Merge

Album No. 11 from Nashville’s self-proclaimed “most fucked-up country band” opens with a bed of tense string lusciousness straight out of a ’50s Douglas Sirk Hollywood melodrama. Then the camera focuses in on a late-night joint, wherein Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner is painting a picture from his corner barstool: “Don’t know what they fuck they talk about,” he sighs wearily. “Maybe blowing kisses, maybe blowing lines / Really, what difference does it make… But the strings sound good, maybe add some flutes.” Though summoned, those flutes never kick in. Things get pretty weird anyway.

There’s a parallel universe out there somewhere beyond the stars, an alternate reality in which Elvis went AWOL from the Army and never came home from Germany, where he’s still alive and making screwball comedies with Jerry Lewis and Betty White BFF Marilyn Monroe. And the soundtrack wafting through every public space of this dimension is a warped countrypolitan ensemble fronted by Jiminy Cricket channeling Frank Sinatra.

That would be Lambchop, still one of the most wonderfully strange bands in the universe after close to 20 years. In their hands, life is a cabaret, ol’ chum — and the sensibility is decidedly Down With People. Not that Wagner and company are misanthropic; they’re just keen observers of the barfly side of the human condition, with all its attendant follies and foibles. One song here is called “Nice Without Mercy,” which pretty much sums it up.

Wagner’s halting, soft-spoken croak of a croon is Willie Nelson and Marianne Faithfull’s lovechild; even when dropping F-bombs, he sustains that time-honored Southern ability to convey contempt through elaborate courtesy, with rich string arrangements adding a further note of gentility. “God made us rational / Thought made you stereo / I think of you today / Boy, what an a-hole” — you could scream the title track’s opening verse, but it feels like more of a dagger when Wagner talk-sings it softly, with strings and gentle wordless ahhhhhh choruses as counterpoint.

While Mr. M consists of 11 allegedly different songs, the album has the unified feel of a single multi-movement suite. Two tracks are instrumentals (“This may not be the place for some country lyricism,” goes the lyric-sheet note regarding “Gar”), and many of the remaining nine close with extended instrumental outros wherein the strings work their magic. It’s like the soundtrack to one of those old black-and-white cartoons where a store’s toys come to life late at night.

As for the verbiage, Wagner’s stream-of-consciousness jabber would seem addled if not for his deliberate pace and his calmly stoic demeanor. Mr. M is dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt, who committed suicide on Christmas Day 2009. Coping with loss has been a consistent Lambchop theme over the years, and it’s hard not to think specifically about Chesnutt when the last line of “Gone Tomorrow” goes, “And I will get along with something less.” The fascinating accompanying video for that one depicts wrestlers going at it in a dark ring, moving as acrobatically as ballet dancers while the lyrics describe a third-world party where “wine tasted like sunshine in a basement.”

Other songs describe ennui from the depths of a meth lab (“2B2”), getting stuck in the middle of someone else’s ugly breakup (“Buttons”), and being unable to get out of your own way — that’d be “The Good Life (Is Wasted),” which concludes with an “…on me” rendered in the same matter-of-fact deadpan in which one might express a preference for plastic over paper. A ray of light does peek through on the closing song, “Never My Love,” which starts out by disavowing love as “just some silly word that people use” before concluding that it’s really all you need. “Love, my stupid love / Has proved that to be without it / Would be a loser’s bit,” Wagner intones, waiting for luck to come along.