Natural History (Entertainment One Music)
By Brian Arsenault
If the only song on this album was “You’re Only Lonely” the CD would still be worth the price of admission. When you hear J.D. Souther sing it here you’ll swear you thought no one but Roy Orbison could do that. You feel the loneliness everyone knows somewhere inside. The kind of song, as Springsteen is supposed to have said about Orbison’s work, that you listen to alone in the dark. If there’s a tear, who knows.
There’s more than one song like that on Natural History, scheduled for release on May 31. Oh, you know a lot them, all of which Souther wrote or co-wrote. Eagles hits, Linda Ronstadt hits, others. But if a song you know can be new again it happens here.
This album’s version of “Best of My Love” draws the line from Brian Wilson’s later Beach Boys straight to the Eagles. They’re both there. And still it’s new again. That doesn’t happen very often.
The album’s ironic title perhaps does it a disservice. This is not a greatest hits album — far from it. Like Souther himself, the album is not a relic or a remnant. It’s a treasure.
I believe if the album had been recorded at a better time musically, they would have given the remarkable ensemble of musicians playing with Souther a name and greeted it as the next great band.
Jeff Coffin’s sax phrasing on the opening song “Go Ahead and Rain” beautifully complements Souther’s vocal. Later, on “Silver Blue,” I thought maybe Coleman Hawkins came back to sit in for a while. And the Mexican flavor of acoustic guitar — I think it’s Brian Sutton — on “New Kid in Town” somehow fits perfectly and underscores Souther’s deeply felt lament on the vagaries of the music business and what used to be called romance (I detest the word relationships). And the stand up bass work of Victor Krauss, well, it’s terrific. Again the old is new, fresh, never hackneyed or formulaic.
Could the album have used a bit of edginess, of up tempo? Yeah, once or twice I thought it might require some anti-depressant medication to get through it all. But that’s a quibble with an artist’s sense of what he wants the tone of his work to be. It’s his call after all.
And it’s a real good call. Sly at times, as on the album’s closing, bar ballad “I’ll Be There at Closing Time.” Is she married? Is she interested? Will closing time not be lonely just this once? Many have been there. Some too often. The line about “When you walk that way” may be tawdry and shallow but it’s better than being lonely and there’s a neat honky-tonk piano chord at the end. I’ll bet Souther will close with this tune a lot while on tour, just to remind us that if we can’t have love, a companion for the night would still be something.
The lyrics to “The Sad Cafe” are pure poetry, reminding us that poetry was originally sung in many cultures. Conversely, if you read the lyrics to almost any Souther song on the printed page they hold up as poetry — intelligent and deep and only very occasionally self indulgent, like feeling sorry for yourself because everybody has your phone number. Don’t answer if you don’t want to.
I feel almost neglectful not to mention every song on Natural History since there’s something special about every one. It’s possible that the best way to listen to this album is to go two or three songs at a time so that you get the richness of each one.
“I’ll Take Care of You” seems a very personal love song that has a last stand quality — maybe for Souther, maybe for all of us not so young any more. “Little Victories” seems to attach to victory the same doubtful quality of Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name. Who really wins?
The listener does. And of all the guys who play on this album, I only regret that I didn’t mention each one. Superb throughout.
Don’t let this album be buried treasure.