It’s Not How Much You Make, but What You Earn: Lambchop – Mr. M

It’s not news to anyone that there is and always has been a debate going on in all art forms between the experimentalist, boundary pushers, and the tried-and-true realists. I like to think about Lambchop’s new album Mr. M in this context. Originally called a country band, and now thought of as a sort of minimalist, lounge-singing, alt-country collective, Lambchop have always been tagged with the hackneyed phrase, “genre-defying.” And with their new album, that label is as pervasive as ever.

Kurt Wagner and co. aren’t reinventing the game here; that’s not their point. But I don’t want to say that they are going back to basics either – there’s nothing basic about this music. In fact, one of the album’s biggest successes lies in its ability to at first come off as being simple, until, after multiple listens, it reveals itself to be anything but. One can go crazy thinking about what category this album fits into. Some of the best albums ever made can stake claim to this same idea. But Kurt Wagner and his band aren’t concerned with inscrutability. They simply don’t care.

Like Tom Wait’s early albums, Mr. M sounds like the late-night, lovelorn laments of a man who’s had too many drinks at a bar. It’s humble. It’s sad. The band, who at any given time is comprised of somewhere between seven and, I don’t know, twenty-something members, manages to fit their dense instrumentation into a small box of sound. In fact, this box is often so small that it can be shocking to hear just how many people are actually playing at once. But this is not the less-is-more ideology at work. No, it’s the more-is-more ideology. It’s the we’re-all-in-this-together ideology. And with the band’s vision as well-developed as it is on this album, who cares how many people are playing guitar?

That said, Wagner’s lyrics are the stand-out here. They are completely in tune with the music behind him. Lines like “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about,” or “It was good to talk to you while we’re cooking. Sounds like we’re making the same thing,” are more affecting than other bands’ entire careers. There’s a wise, almost lamenting, nostalgia to the album, like an old man on a porch talking about the way things used to be and the mistakes he made (which I suspect is not far off). The seven minute long poem-put-to-music, “Mr. Met”, is maybe the best example of this. Take this stanza:

Sound makes us visual,
Life made you beautiful,
Hate makes us powerless,
Turn on a radio.

These lines epitomize what the entire album is all about: it’s about trying to make sense of the past, and ultimately forgetting it, through music.

And then there’s the line in “Kind Of,” where Wagner says in an all-too-familiar way: “It’s not how much you make, but what you earn.” This line is frustratingly relatable, upsettingly insightful; it symbolizes what’s going on in the world right now. Coming from a country band helmed by a fifty-something chain smoker, this seems like quite the feat. And it is. Mr. M is so well-realized, it’s hard to imagine it not touching everyone who listens to it.

And here’s the equally-evocative video for album standout “2B2”:

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