James McMurtry is a true craftsman of a story song and writes with the attention to detail and precision of a master short story author. Call it a vibe, style or sound, McMurtry has his own and you know it as soon as you hear it. His sound is like Mellencamp’s but worn down and run ragged from years of hard life. On Complicated Game the music is steady but understated and works to serve the lyrics and illustrate the world within the songs.
The blue collar hardships appear almost immediately on the lead-off song, “Copper Canteen.” The story is one that’s been told before, growing up before you know it, with a hard life while others around you succeed. But it’s McMurtry’s details that make the song come to life. There’s washing blood off the tailgate and wanting to kill one more deer before the season ends. But there’s also big details like big box stores out by the highway and the misery they bring. The melody and guitar sounds match the road-weary tales and the pace of McMurtry’s voice is as steady and unrelenting as life itself.
Some of the most interesting moments on Complicated Game are when McMurtry shifts away from his traditional sound. “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” isn’t a giant departure but its boot-stomping banjo and exaggerated back beat are a welcomed addition. Later, “Forgotten Coast” almost swings like a Bob Wills song without losing the McMurtry feel.
Complicated Game is less overtly political than his most recent releases. Possibly that’s because the political climate and leadership has changed, perhaps it’s just the direction he chose to go. But these twelve songs tell tales of society and the affect it has on the individual in much the same way Chris Knight works. Autopsy IV, of Nine Bullets fame, says the album is great for people who really miss the early Lucero albums. Craig Finn, of Hold Steady fame, writes in The Talk Box that “The music is always elegant here. McMurtry is consistently honest and the songs’ characters are dignified and nuanced. He never writes down to these people or judges their situations. That’s why Complicated Game is another fantastic collection of songs by one of America’s best songwriters.” I’ll just say it’s Essential Listening.