Lambchop – Toward a unified theory of vinyl evolution
“Decline…” is also apparently about the fluctuating receptions (“The print/The proof/It disappoints”) that Lambchop’s artistry has received since its 1994 debut I Hope You’re Sitting Down. That album was a talky, poetic affair interrupted by brazen numbers that reveled in the band’s affection for the Butthole Surfers (as well as Wagner’s uncanny vocal ability to channel Gibby Haynes). The band’s wispy second album How I Quit Smoking gets namechecked in “Decline” at the one-minute mark. The 2000 release Nixon expanded on the band’s elegant soul excursions and proved a critical darling, probably prompting the “Decline” line, “It’s their best effort to date.”
The amateur rock press takes the song’s next arrow: “You see your pitchfork I-rock saviors.” Pitchfork being pitchforkmedia.com, a website for which I have toiled almost five years, and “I” standing for “indie,” Merge’s stock-in-trade. Wagner demurs, “That line may not have to do with Pitchfork as a particular outlet at all, as a magazine or whatever, but with the medium itself…” at which point in the interview he cackles maniacally, before surrendering. “You know, I’m not going to help you out there.”
The song is larger in scope and more histrionically emotional than most of the offerings on the new record. Wagner always saw “Decline” as the show-stopping finale, even though his wife thinks it should have been the first song. “We had a debate about that,” he says. But such a move would have announced a different kind of album. Damaged is the first Lambchop record that, at least from the point of view of someone paid to type about music, is angle- and gimmick-free. Whereas 2002’s Is A Woman was their sparse, piano-sex collection and 2004’s Aw C’mon/No You C’mon was an ambitious double set, the new disc’s take on Memphis soul is subtler than the band’s more labored work, while its country is quieter than their rootin-tootinest. Damaged is the only Lambchop album for which one might use the term “stillborn” as a compliment.
Wagner’s songwriting is frequently dubbed “singular” by admirers, probably because he actually uses the debris of existence (proper nouns such as Sherwin Williams and Golden Grahams) in his lyrics, as opposed to the abstractions such as “love” and “eternity” that clog country radio. If one were to forage through his discography looking for something utterly populist or universal — a statement broad enough to shepherd a potential hit — one might have to settle for a ten-year-old tune with the common-enough chorus, “You are the one.” That love song, though, contains a shout-out to Gomer Pyle, whom Wagner presents as contrapuntal to hipness in 2006: The Pitchfork/I-rock diss in “Decline” builds to the coy taunt, “I’m sorry I still prefer Jim Nabors.”
Jim Nabors simply speaks to Kurt Wagner more than any bash-n-pop outfit of late. “I honestly don’t know really if it’s because of the way I’m approaching listening to music now,” he aims to explain, “not so much as an elderly person, but just as someone who has been listening to music a long time. It’s just a realization I’m coming to.”
Realizations? Jim Nabors? I smell Jesus. Religion hasn’t loomed large in Lambchop’s catalog, but suddenly, Damaged features references to “preacher’s blend,” and a song about searching for a paperback Bible. Wagner admits he is juggling theological freight, but says that he is hardly to blame.
“Frankly [the Bible] wasn’t really my choice,” he claims. ‘What I was doing was trying to find my way through to a story that was being put on NPR, and I wrote that song specifically for this piece on a swap shop. I just used the quotes from the story and tried to make them into a song in a unique way. For me, the Bible kind of…pops up. It is a loaded item. Hopefully I didn’t wear it out! I did introduce it as, yeah, this religion’s going on here. But to me, religion is a personal thing, as opposed to a group gathering.”
The song “Prepared” is ostensibly about losing a beloved to natural causes…or divine rapture. The speaker prays, “Bring him up the Christian way/And now what can I say that’s less profane?” Four-letter words have been a staple of past Lambchop work — one could make a mixtape whose obscene titles would read like a 2 Live Crew sampler — but Wagner has sworn off swearing for the moment.
“I really made an effort not to cuss this time,” he says. “Earlier in our stuff I was nasty, but as things have gone along, I’ve really tried to rethink using that type of profane approach to language unless I think it’s important. In the past it was indicative of where I hung around. On construction sites, everybody fucking cussed every fucking word. As my surroundings have changed, I try to be more considered of the way I go about writing. Yet I don’t belittle what I did before.”
A passing fancy for the era when American soldiers either knew their Shakespeare or were illiterate is partly to blame for this album’s more Latinate word choice. “I’ve been watching some ‘Deadwood’ and reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Wagner reveals. “I’m really fascinated by the 1800s, and really interested in the language. On this album, the language came literally from reading that book and watching that show, which, by the way, cusses all the fucking time. There was really a kind of crazy discrepancy going on in the 1800s between people with an education versus not having an education. It’s similar to today, with the haves and have-nots.”
Wagner’s early days as a skilled laborer allowed him a long taste of the have-not milieu, but he harbors few regrets. Installing floors for a living didn’t deplete his creativity. “I would probably still be doing flooring today if I hadn’t physically fallen apart,” he says. “It gave me a center of focus: I would never have to lay on the idea of being a musician. I could be comforted in the fact that I was a floor mechanic.