Since returning from a musical hiatus 16 years ago with The Houston Kid, Rodney Crowell has steadily made great albums, most with an introspective ‘Americana’ flavor. With a few duets projects in between (two with Emmylou Harris, one with Mary Kerr), Rodney returns with what feels like kin to The Houston Kid, The Outsider and Fate’s Right Hand. While 2008’s Sex & Gasoline and 2015’s Tarpaper Sky had their moments of introspectiveness, Close Ties, Rodney’s second album to be released by New West Records, feels definitively like the fourth album in a series of songs where Rodney looks inward or to his upbringing and the life around him to tell his well-mapped-out stories.
“East Houston Blues” is a song that gets to the point and joins “The Houston Kid” as songs which speak directly to that hardscrabble childhood. Producers Jordan Leaning and Kim Buie are the latest set of producers which Rodney has chosen to work with (instead of self-producing) and they bring a sonic spark to the story songs where instruments are allowed to shine in the mix as much as Crowell’s strong, weathered voice which has always held a southern gothic McCartney-like tone and he may sound better on Close Ties than he has on any record to date. Lyrics often have a literary and poetic quality and that’s what draws the listener in to these decidedly non-mainstream songs.
“Reckless” is a melodically moody story song with the right amount of instrumental fills accenting Crowell’s equally moody lyric about a restless man feeling boxed in a relationship. The anguished “Life Without Susanna” tells a story of a woman who was forever changed and self-medicated by the loss of a loved one while the lyrics of others talk about life in Nashville as part of the community he became a part of, with Guy and Susanna Clark, Towns Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Tom T. Hall among the songwriters name-checked throughout the record. “It Ain’t Over Yet” features both Rosanne Cash and John Paul White and it’s a strong rootsy Americana song while Sheryl Crow joins for the achingly honest “I’m Tied To Ya.”
“Forgive Me Annabelle” is a song where Rodney discusses what its like to be the man who breaks up a relationship while “Forty Miles From Nowhere” and “I Don’t Care Anymore” tell stories about characters that are fleshed out like mini movies while “Nashville 1972” tells an honest story about Rodney’s life as a young songwriter in a time when Nashville was seemingly more focused on great songs and songwriters than of commercial concerns. And that’s kinda what Rodney Crowell has been going for since 2001’s The Houston Kid. Close Ties is a record that continues to show that his third act as a Nashville recording artist is that of Americana superstar and is an artist that actually is surpassing his second act as country music superstar to tie together to his first act as in-demand songwriter to cement his status as an American songwriting icon.