Album Review: James McMurtry, ‘Complicated Game’
Throughout his career, James McMurtry has always played the role of the underdog. Even when he hits No. 1 on the Americana radio charts, receives a Grammy nod or picks up an Americana Music Award, he never quite gets the credit he deserves.
This was made crystal clear in a handful of recent tours that swung through New York City: Jason Isbell sold out the iconic Beacon Theatre (capacity 2,900), Sturgill Simpson sold out two nights in a row at two separate venues, each with a capacity of nearly 600 ... and McMurtry sold out the Mercury Lounge, with an occupancy of 250.
That isn’t meant to discredit McMurtry; rather, it's designed to draw your attention to a severe injustice in the alt-country and Americana world, one that has never given McMurtry a much-deserved wide recognition -- but also one that has never seemed to be of any concern to the Austin-based songsmith. After all, regardless of the publicity he may or may not receive, his authentic lyricism and astounding guitar work have afforded him the opportunity to perform music all over the world, garnering praise from the likes of John Mellencamp (who produced McMurtry's debut album and says he "writes like he's lived a lifetime"), Stephen King (who calls him the "truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation") and even Isbell (who says he's "one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth").
With each and every disc in his catalog, McMurtry's first-hand -- and often bleak -- perspective hearkens memories of Lou Reed's honest prose; there is no filler, there is no garbage, only bona fide bits and pieces of American life strewn throughout a 24-year career.
Those talents are on full display on his latest album -- his first in six years; ninth overall -- Complicated Game. While many reviews and statements classify this LP as more "acoustic" than what McMurtry normally produces, rest assured it still features the toe-tapping rhythms that he's so perfectly crafted over the last two decades. Even in the sobering opener, "Copper Canteen," McMurtry's percussive strumming creates a complete sound that seems absent in most other "acoustic" albums.
All through Complicated Game, McMurtry's words and music are built on top of an unforgettable foundation laid out by storied producer C.C. Adcock -- "She Loves Me" is a poignant story about stubborn love and eventual heartbreak ("It's an airport novella / Adapted for late night TV / I’m not writing the screenplay / It's writing me"); "These Things I've Come to Know" finds its narrator pining for a woman behind the bar ("She can change her own fuse, she can fix her own car / She can back down a drunk and run him out of the bar / She don't scare easy, but she can be pushed too far"; and "South Dakota" might be one of McMurtry's greatest songs in the last decade ("With a gas lease or two we might've just made due / But there's nothing under this ground worth a dime / Now the sheriff's on his way and it's damn sure not our day / It's just our time").
For fans who are looking for an introduction to McMurtry, Complicated Game may be best heard two or three records into the listening session (may we suggest 1989's Too Long in the Wasteland followed by 2002's Saint May of the Woods?). But that shouldn't lessen its importance in McMurtry's discography; the record, from start to finish, is the Austin musician at his finest.
Regardless if it sells a million copies or 1,000, McMurtry will continue touring and he’ll continue making music -- but most importantly, we get the feeling Complicated Game will prove to be a monumental milestone in an already remarkable journey.