The Mighty King of Love is back, sounding as much like Dylan’s twisted kid brother as he ever did, and hauling along with him a particularly luminous cast of Nashville’s finest. George Bradfute was at the helm in his Tone Chapparal studio – virtually a hallmark of quality in itself, to see that on a disc – and Richard Bennett provided the guitar work that is a source of joy from start to finish. Beyond that, Dave Roe and Ken Coomer (ex Uncle Tupelo and Wilco) provide the rhythm section, and supporting parts come from the likes of Jen Gunderman, Peter Cooper, David Olney and Joy Lynn White. Their presence is testimony to the impact Phil Lee has made in his dozen years or so of making records. He started writing relatively late in life but there’s two generations of great music absorbed into his bones and it seems to flow right back out of him with a fresh twist that is pure Phil Lee. He tried, and failed, to be a Nashville hack writer, and fortunately he decided to plug away in his own style. Witty, wicked, compassionate, profane, misanthropic – he can be all of these things and more. He’ll never be bland or anodyne, though, and hooray for that.
The overwhelming impression from this bunch of songs is that Phil Lee and his mates just had a blast making this record. The words are frequently playful and inconsequential as the emphasis rests on a bunch of master musicians playing around with a load of different styles and coming out on top every time. A couple of times they sound something like an old-time jug band but then they can also hit you with the punchy heaviness of a song like Chloe, which sounds something like the birth of heavy metal. Whatever they come up with, it’s performed with panache, commitment and a deep love for the source material that provides the inspiration. Richard Bennett’s guitar work is a masterclass in itself, never flashy and spot-on every time, whether he’s giving it a bit of rockabilly or some real old country twang. Everybody on this album, though, sounds on top of their game, completely assured of what they’re doing. The big sound that George Bradfute has gone for (Big backing vocals! Meaty, mighty drums!) makes this one country album that should be turned up loud and left there. I promise you, this works best if you just totally surrender to the Phil Lee world. He opens with some wittily bitter words: “When you left, I said ‘At last!’” and the one-liners come in a steady stream that’ll keep the smile on your face. My favourite song is probably the most country; Cold Ground has its share of cheesy Nashville sentimentality but if you run with that you’ll find a song of heartfelt poignancy that might bring a tear to your eye in the wrong (or right) mood.
Phil Lee and his friends wear their supreme musicianship lightly and this album is a street ahead of most things you’ll hear this year; it has a joie-de-vivre that no amount of jokily bitter lines can disguise.
(Swear word alert on this clip!)