The songs on Marshall Crenshaw’s tenth studio album, his first in six years, creep up on you in unexpected ways. Anyone familiar with his body of work will hear distinctive shades of his past from the rockabilly flavored opener “Right on Time” to the smooth adult nostalgia and resignation of “Passing Through.” But despite the familiarity, Crenshaw still provides plenty of melodic invention, solid musicianship, and lovely odes to domestic bliss and turmoil to make Jaggedland, despite some missteps and general moodiness, an ultimately rewarding listen.
Those traits are showcased to great effect on the album’s final track, “Live and Learn.” Backed as he is on most of the album by a dream pick-up band that includes session pro drummer and erstwhile Traveling Wilbury Jim Keltner, ace pedal steel player Greg Leisz and bassist Sebastian Steinberg, Crenshaw sings about his youth and the hard-won lessons and regrets of adulthood. Then in a soaring, optimistic sounding chorus that is both welcome and unexpected, Crenshaw entreats himself mantra-like to “shake the clouds from your head.” It’s all set to a backbeat borrowed from “There She Goes Again” and a dozen other Crenshaw songs from the past, which doesn’t make it any less great, just pleasantly familiar.
The aforementioned “Passing Through” has some of that same familiarity. But it harks back to the warmth of later Crenshaw efforts like 1999’s #447. It has a sweet sentimentality that gets the heartfelt details right and earns the lump in the throat honestly.
“In our old shoes we walked last night / Ghosts of old friends on the left and right / Being there with you gave me a thrill / Like it used to do and always will,” he sings.
Crenshaw contemplates his own mortality and offers a “seize the day” maxim as he ponders old friends who have shuffled off this mortal coil.
“This world is moving and changing always / We’d better be about new days / For as long as we may / We’re just passing through / Just passing through this way.”
Then in the last verse, he ties all the wistfulness for old friends and familiar places together in a touching, hopeful refrain.
“We’ve got dreams to dream / Places left to go / When we’ll be back there, I don’t know / Maybe sometime before we’re done / On some other trip around the sun.”
If “Passing Through” and “Live and Learn” are clearly the highlights of Jaggedland, they aren’t the only pleasures to be had. There is also the lovely melodic acoustic chill of the title track instrumental with its strings and mellotron colors. And Crenshaw’s appreciation for his musical heroes continues unabated. This is after all a guy who played Buddy Holly in the movie “La Bamba” and once recorded a song called “I’m Sorry (But So is Brenda Lee).”
On “Right On Time,” in perhaps one of Crenshaw’s best opening lines ever he sings: “I had a strange dream one time / There was you, Bobby Vinton and me / In a hotel ballroom / Full of marble and mahogany.” There are references to Louis Jordan and Frank Sinatra here as well. Later on, in the catchy “Just Snap Your Fingers,” he name checks the King. “Anyplace is paradise when I’m with you / Elvis sang it and it’s true,” he sings.
Sure, there are a few non-essential tracks here as there are on most Crenshaw records. “Gasoline Baby” is a particularly egregious throwaway, sounding like something a child would write. Knowing that Crenshaw recorded all the parts himself doesn’t really make it any better. Crenshaw also tries to get a little political on “Eventually” and it doesn’t quite work. “Watching Headline News / Sociopaths and fools on parade / Of course we all will be paying for the mess they’ve made / There’s more dark business in the newspapers / And magazines on the shelf,” he sings awkwardly. It’s the sort of clunky world-weariness that weighed down Crenshaw’s previous effort, 2003’s disappointing What’s In the Bag.
But when Crenshaw puts it all together — the rockabilly beats, the melodic turns, and the sincere sentimentality — he gets it right in spades. There’s enough of that here to make Jaggedland a welcome return for the wily pop-rock veteran.
Marshall Crenshaw: www.marshallcrenshaw.com