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Lambchop's long and winding road

Kurt Wagner performs with Lambchop in September at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Erik Westra
/
Courtesy of the artist
Kurt Wagner performs with Lambchop in September at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Lambchop records almost always begin with the musical equivalent of an interrobang — a moment so simultaneously surprising and uncanny, you have little choice but to keep listening and hear how it resolves.

There were the softly sung fighting words of "My Face Your Ass," a stately soul song as slow as some ancient Southern river, on 1997's Thriller, then a countrypolitan waltz through a wild maze of wordplay on the 2000 breakthrough Nixon. The curtain rose on 2012's Mr. M with trilling strings and twinkling piano as though Sinatra himself were about to stride to the microphone, only to have singer and songwriter Kurt Wagner curse his way through the first verse like an exasperated parent. Four years later, FLOTUS began with a 12-minute meditation on not knowing anything, Wagner's ultra-processed baritone drifting across subtle dub like a ghost. "Whoever said I had the answer / They don't live here, next to the house of cancer," cooed the then-58-year-old cancer survivor, his shrug so complete it seemed to stretch for miles.

There is now no better Lambchop gambit than "His Song Is Sung," the transfixing and half-tragic masterpiece that begins the band's best album in a decade, The Bible (out Sept. 30). A brooding overture of strings and horns rises, tightens, and then breathes, leaving only Wagner's scarred oak of a voice above a frigid drone. "The room was warmer than it should be," he sings. "The light in there was barely there." Wagner describes a paralyzing scene: visiting his nonagenarian father at home, and finding him so deep in his chair he appears dead. As he surveys the room through the first whiff of sadness, two heavy piano chords repeat after each line, demanding to know what is happening.

Then, he flips on the lights — and his dad rouses. The orchestra rushes in, suddenly triumphant: Harps dance around skywriting strings, while trumpets proclaim squiggling fanfares over clattering drums and a bass line so thick it sounds exactly the way your heart feels after surviving some surefire catastrophe. They don't talk about much, Wagner and his pops; they're just "waiting for a place to fill" with chit-chat. But the effect is like walking through a cramped, dusty closet of cobwebs only to emerge into some lush garden, a colorful riot of life. It is a moment full of possibility, even if that only means one more aimless conversation with an aging parent.

Indeed, Lambchop has always been an expression of absolute possibility, and one of the most inspiring institutions in American rock for it. Trained as a painter, working odd jobs around his Nashville hometown, Wagner began writing songs in the late '80s simply because his motley crew of musician friends needed something other than covers to play. Casualness and camaraderie have since defined his restless collective, which once sprawled to a two-dozen-piece orchestra but was rather recently a compact duo. There have been demented trips to Broadway, lysergic sojourns into electrosoul and extended stays at the fringes of indie rock.

Wagner has often been asked just what kind of music Lambchop plays, and he has made a winking cri de coeur of lamenting how "country" tends to stick to Nashville artists as a default assumption. The better question, though, might be what sort of music the band doesn't play, because there seem to be so few answers, only interests Wagner has yet to pursue. Though he is a singular singer with an instantly identifiable voice, he has led Lambchop with a kind of ageless flexibility, never hardening into a single sound.

On the other hand, he has always written about feeling perennially out of place, whether with the slick city that's made him an outcast at home or with a world that wants something — a hook, advice, simplicity — that he can't offer. In recent years, advancing age has been the axis of that otherness. "The rest just needs a rest," Wagner sang on FLOTUS, capping a summary of people who settled into something less than what they wanted to be, only to calcify. This discomfort emerges more fully than ever on The Bible, an album that wrestles plainly with the complications of getting older while presenting whatever lessons Wagner may have about the process. Still, through these 10 songs, Wagner has unlocked yet another way to reimagine Lambchop's sound, to remain young.

A little before COVID-19 changed the way music gets built, Wagner met a crew of Upper Midwest musicians during a residency in Germany. These associates of Bon Iver, The National and a dozen smaller acts rekindled the feeling of his salad days, younger friends getting high on making strange music (among other things, natch). He kept in close touch, cutting the curious Showtunes with two of those Minneapolis producers, Ryan Olson and Andrew Broder. After the pandemic began, Wagner found himself staying up late to marvel at Broder's piano improvisations on Instagram, and eventually asked him for some takes he might sing to.

Olson, Broder and Wagner began sharing files like high-velocity shuttlecocks, the inspiration flying in all directions. At Olson's suggestion, Wagner toyed with lyrics written through artificial intelligence before reverting to his own pen. At Wagner's urging, Olson and Broder went wild building on top of the raw material: Incongruous samples — a cocked pistol, a jock-jam "Hey!" — interrupt piano reveries, while elsewhere church bells and seraphic horns make pedestrian lines about eating pizza with a fork or listening to "Ol' Man River" sound like music for last rites.

There is at least a glimpse here of most everything Lambchop has done before, but ripped apart and reoriented within the context of what else is possible now. "Little Black Boxes," a love song for the end of time, sashays from the disco to the rave, all thudding bass and synths that circle like slow strobe lights. Wagner's faint croon is processed and folded so much during "Dylan at the Mousetrap" that it disappears into the purring pedal steel behind it, fading into forever as he sings about the way time seems to speed and creep all at once. These choices have more to do with SoundCloud rap, electroacoustic music and high-production pop than anyone's conception of a Nashville sound, and that sense of newness creates an electrifying contrast with what's actually on his mind now, at the edge of 64.

"I say hello, I must be going / I used to feel old, but now it's showing," he sings at the start of "Daisy." Unaccompanied save the digital wobble etched into his voice, he admits he can't consider babies being born without contemplating what it's like to be plowed underground. He putters around looking for his shoes during "Police Dog Blues," a shaggy-dog tale of wasting time at coffee shops and rain-delayed baseball games. What use is time, after all, when you can start to see everyone around you running out of that resource? "Here comes the chorus — you wanna hear the chorus? Let all the children sing," he deadpans toward the end, the veteran coming around to give the kids what they want, to get on with the show.

Very little of this sounds bitter, some potential sniping about the music industry's obsession with youth during the wonderfully named "Whatever, Mortal" aside. Instead, these songs feel like gracious bits of gifted wisdom, parables handed down in a fashion that, yes, you might call biblical. After that scare with his father (thankfully still alive at home with a round-the-clock caretaker), he peers across the interstate to imagine "another world," a sanctuary for himself. "To be civil, to be gentle, to be honest, to be kind," he sings during the exquisite "So There," delivering the collected proverbs of his lifetime, "to welcome the unexpected with an unsatisfied mind." That's the engine of Lambchop's perpetual motion machine, put more plainly than ever.

Wagner has known how to start albums since 1994, when he began Lambchop's debut, I Hope You're Sitting Down, with "Begin," a perfect short story about a meet-cute. Wagner namechecks that record during the last minute of the last song on The Bible, drawing a circle around his career, and maybe pulling its shades, too. As he has during almost every album cycle of the past decade, Wagner has hinted that this latest work could be his last. It's fair to be skeptical, to take these as the ordinary cry-wolf jitters of a man who will, in the same chat where he's mentioned quitting, share a dozen new ideas he hopes to pursue. But if this is in fact the "End" for Lambchop, one of rock's most intriguing bands for a quarter-century, it is an especially generous farewell — sweet and sad, funny and sour, hopeful and fatalistic, brittle and gorgeous, exotic and familiar, a genuine smile after a deep sigh.

"That's music," he offers as parting words, the knowing chuckle clear even behind the robotic effects. It's hard to imagine a more fitting final testament, even if it finishes a record that feels like the start of something masterful, honest and new.

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Grayson Haver Currin