Many signs point to Twang not being a regular old George Strait album, from the much-discussed cover of José Alfredo Jiménez’s ranchero-style “El Rey” (sung in Spanish) to the multiple Strait writing credits – from both George and son Bubba – to the surprisingly casual cover shot, which sees George kicking back behind the steering wheel with shirt untucked, tongue sticking out. Oh, and the title: Twang. Like a mission statement. Like the summation of a career.
But in a lot of ways, it is just a regular old George Strait album. And that’s good news, since Strait’s ability to inject even passable contemporary fare with a quiet dignity and conviction only seems to improve as he ages. Where songs like “Easy As You Go” and “The Breath You Take” would sound damningly trite in the hands of most anyone else, they have a certain austere stateliness as delivered by Strait. When he lays into a song more deserving of his talent, like the Jim Lauderdale penned title track, Bubba’s fine “Arkansas Dave,” Delbert McClinton’s “Same Kind of Crazy” or classic break-up ballads like “Out of Sight Out of Mind” and “Beautiful Day for Goodbye” (both album highlights), he’s as good as he’s ever been. But, I would hasten to add, not better.
What this album has over much of Strait’s previous work is not quality but surprise. Comparing this to Strait’s other recent albums, I’d probably still have to give It Just Comes Natural the nod for strongest overall collection.
But there are some interesting changes afoot here. There’s the fact that Strait is writing songs, which is hard to overstate: after recording but one of his own songs in the course of his MCA Nashville career, he has recorded three of them here. There’s “El Rey,” which sounds so authentic that it will surprise you even if you know it’s coming. There’s an epic, murderous story song in “Arkansas Dave,” which is a bit of a departure from Strait’s usual subject matter. And I’ve never heard him sounding any looser than he does on rockers “Same Kind of Crazy” (previously recorded by Del McCoury and Patty Loveless) and “Hot Grease and Zydeco”; it’s almost like they liquored him up first. Who is this crazy man with the untucked shirt putting all that sauce on his vocals?
Maybe that ACM Artist of the Decade tribute show scared Strait and he’s out to let everyone know that he isn’t done surprising us yet. Whatever the cause, the spirit of experimentation evident on Twang suggests that Strait is embarking on an especially exciting part of his career. The nice thing about experimentation, Strait-style, is that it doesn’t require wilfully obsolescing oneself: it’s just unexpected enough to be exciting, just Strait enough to remain salable. With his strong commercial sense, Strait could start making more artsy, left-field moves without disturbing his mythic run on the charts. If anyone can strike that balance, it’s him.
I’ve long been a Strait fan, but Twang has me feeling something I don’t recall ever having felt about him: I’m not sure what he’ll do next… and I’m excited to find out. Strait has remained relevant and consistent over the course of his career, but with Twang he pulls off the neat trick of making himself interesting again.
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