With Tim O’Brien’s expansive career, one would expect few remaining firsts, but Cup of Sugar marks his first album of all original songs, either written or co-written by the award-winning singer and multi-instrumentalist. The album presents a variety of perspectives from bear to fish, from grave digger to a posthumous Walter Cronkite.
O’Brien maintains an acoustic presence across a blend of genres. The jaunty opening track, “Bear,” is sung from the creature’s point of view, as he emerges from his den to find the world changing, with the smell of smoke and sound of distant gunshots. “Let the Horses Run,” which follows, lays down pure bluegrass, opening with banjo and featuring Del McCoury on vocals and harmony. “Diddle-Eye-Day” has more of an old-time feel with banjo-mandolin duets and simple rhyme. O’Brien’s clever wordsmithing and rhyme infuse the lyrics.
“Stuck in the Middle (Of Your Love)” captures the bittersweet experience of someone caught off guard by his lover’s departure. The revelation that “[he] fell off the wagon soon after you left” suggests why. “She Can’t, He Won’t, and They’ll Never,” a track co-written by O’Brien’s wife, Jan Fabricius, who sings lead, offers a different angle from a similar broken relationship.
The album is marked by quirky multiple perspective. The gravedigger in “The Pay’s a Lot Better Too” delivers wisdom in the time it takes to smoke his hand-rolled cigarette.
“Thinkin’ Like a Fish” is a far cry from Ted Lasso’s goldfish with its 10-second memory. The song’s funky vibe, established by Mike Rojas’ keys, complements the insight of a self-aware fish with no intention of ending up in the frying pan. The ending hints at another layer of meaning, with memories of “my younger days when I was in school” and warnings against “that pretty little thing … [who] might rip your cheek and throw you back.”
Anyone familiar with the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest on horseback for decades alongside I-65 (looking a lot like Shaggy from Scooby Doo) will especially enjoy “Shout Lulu,” a hilarious tribute to the border collie who was left a fortune in the will of his owner, who commissioned the statue to honor the first grand wizard of the KKK.
The gem of the album, its title song, is nestled in the middle, a gentle reminder of the possibility of being neighborly even to those whose musical or political tastes don’t match our own, as the chorus suggests:
I try to pick my battles, don’t want to start a war.
If I need a cup of sugar, I’ll knock on my neighbor’s door.
An underlying theme throughout the album is the changing view of life as one ages. In the press materials, O’Brien says, “I’m in my late ’60s and doing fine, but I’m looking at things from that older perspective.”
Whether in “Little Lamb, Little Lamb,” where he notes that “living and dying walk along hand in hand,” or in “Goodbye Old Friend,” O’Brien shares insights gained over his life and career.
Tim O’Brien’s Cup of Sugar is out June 16 on Howdy Skies Records.