A ‘psycho-Sinatra’ sound, the press release says, conjuring a winning image of Ol’ Blue Eyes scrubbing wildly back and forth through a demo of My Way whilst wielding an axe soaked in his own urine. It is not, in truth, a particularly fitting description. Mr M, the eleventh album from Nashville’s Lambchop, is not given to instability, let alone aggression: heck, it barely speaks above a whisper.
It doesn’t need to. After two decades of songwriting Kurt Wagner is not a guy who needs to strain for attention, nor, really, seems to care whether he gets it or not. Sure, Mr M may open with a cuss, Wagner conceding that he “don’t know what the fuck they talk about,” but it’s less in anger than in world-weary resignation. The release is dedicated to Wagner’s close friend Vic Chesnutt, a Georgia-based singer-songwriter who died from an overdose in 2009, and an understated melancholy suffuses its runtime like a low mist.
It’s there in the song titles, from If Not I’ll Just Die through to Gone Tomorrow and The Good Life (Is Wasted), and in the references to “Grandpa’s coffin in the kitchen” – a sadness that, in other hands, could quickly have cloyed into sentiment but here just comes across as quietly affecting. It’s most evident in album standout Buttons, a seemingly direct address to Chesnutt that’s affectionate and nostalgic and a touch too personal to listen to without a slightly discomforting sense of voyeurism, as though peering through the door at a hospital-bed vigil.
Yet it would be wrong to characterise Mr M as a miserable album, a sonic gloom of anguish and despair. It’s low-key, certainly, with little in the fairly minimal arrangements to distract from Wagner’s warm tones, but it’s often very pretty, strings swelling and cascading behind piano motifs and acoustic strums. 2B2 is lovely, an intricate mesh of fireside vocals and rich instrumentation, answerphone recordings layered through the outro, and the opener is essential, a lounge-club love song barbed with hints of shadows.
Somewhere around the midpoint it does start to meld a little, sure – at nearly an hour there’s more than a touch of sagging, a few tracks prone to blurring and others, such as The Good Life, that don’t really do anything. But somehow that doesn’t matter, Lambchop’s unhurried approach just a part of their charm. This isn’t an album that’s likely to change anything, but nor does it deserve to just pass by unnoticed: it’s nice to hear something that isn’t setting out to assault you, to scar with its intensity or baffle in its strive to move things forward. And by its close, with the sweet, subtle Never My Love, Mr M sounds neither tired nor mournful but contented – and yeah, that’s absolutely fine.