Pop music is usually fairly predictable when it comes to lyrical content. The majority of what you're going to hear on the radio will more than likely deal with the stages of a romantic relationship, from the first blush of love to the heartbreak of it falling apart. Occasionally a writer will seek his or her inspiration in world affairs or perhaps an aspect of the human condition other than love; but even in those circumstances there is an accepted formula which most follow.
T Bone Burnett has never been one to follow the herd in anything that he has done. Whether he's producing a Robert Plant and Allison Krauss collaboration, acting as musical advisor to movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain, or recording his own music, he's always marched to the beat of his own drum. Two years ago he released his first release in more then a decade, and The True False Identity was a collection of the exceptional lyrics and musical experimentation people had come to expect from the man who penned songs like "Hefner and Disney" back in the eighties.
Tooth Of Crime, on Nonesuch Records is not just an example of Burnett going places that other popular musicians would fear to tread, it's also an indication of just how much he invests of himself into a project. Burnett first started work on the material included in this disc back in 1996 as part of a collaboration with noted American playwright – and sometime actor – Sam Shepard.
Shepard first wrote the play Tooth Of Crime back in 1972, and in 1996 he re-staged it with material that Burnett wrote for the actors to sing as part of the performance. The CD that's scheduled for release on May 13, isn't a cast album from the play though. Instead Burnett has taken the framework that the play offered and used it as the context for the songs included on this recording. Some of the songs are from that 1996 performance, while others are ones that Burnett started work on back then, but only now has had the time to complete to his satisfaction.
Although written back in the early '70s, the play's theme about the illusionary qualities of fame within the context of a culture where someone is designated a celebrity for whom they are and not what they've done – think Paris Hilton – is still relevant today. However don't come to this CD looking for literal attacks on the cult of celebrity, Burnett is far more subtle than that. The music and the lyrics of each song combine to create almost abstract impressions expressing a mood or emotion that illustrates an aspect of the theme.
Musically the songs range everywhere from the twisted Rockabilly sound of the opening "Anything I Say Can And Will Be Used Against You" to a ballad like "Kill Zone." Each of the styles are deliberate choices on the part of Burnett as they generate the different moods and emotions that he wants us to realize accompany the rise and fall of today's instant celebrities. There's the greed and ambition of the person on the way to the top, the ruthlessness of those who are stars not wanting to surrender their position, and even the momentary doubts that they might have about the cost being paid to achieve their flickering fame.
Some of the songs defy definition in terms of popular music. "Telepresence" is a chilling combination of spoken word over a distant layer of muted, tortured, and distorted electric guitar sounds. Desolate and devoid of any human warmth it expresses the true emptiness that lies at the heart of trivial stardom. "It's the Jesus channel baby, make the metal scream, make the metal scream" Burnett intones, making sure we know that all those sacrifices that have been made for stardom haven't resulted in anything close to salvation.
As you can tell from those descriptions Tooth Of Crime is not an easy disc to listen to in terms of content. It presents a very bleak image of a society where people desire fame for the sake of fame. What's more it appears that those who achieve fame never get to enjoy it as they spend all of their time obsessing over how to hold on to it. Isolation seems to be the only reward for celebrity, as those around them are either potential usurpers of their position or only interested in them for what they are, not who they are as people.
Musically and lyrically it presents the listener with challenges that one doesn't normally associate with popular music. Even songs like "Sweet Lullaby," with its gentle, country tinged, musical introduction, becomes unsettling with the addition of Burnett's vocal track. His voice has been treated so that it sounds like its being heard from a great distance and through an old radio speaker. The contrast between that and the warmth of the music adds an edge to an already emotionally ambivalent lyric, dashing the humanizing potential that the introduction implied.
While I am familiar with some of Sam Shepard's plays, Tooth Of Crime was not one that I knew anything about before listening to Burnett's CD. While knowledge of the play would probably enhance the experience of listening to the recording – it would be interesting to know about the characters who sung the songs and the circumstances in the play that inspired them – the CD stands as a work of art in its own right.
There are not many composers of any genre who are as capable of creating music that rewards its listeners to the extent that T Bone Burnett does. Not only is he an innovative musician he is also an intelligent lyricist. On Tooth Of Crime he demonstrates just how gifted he is in both areas.