21st Century Rock ’n’ Roll 

T Bone Burnett’s first album in 14 years may be his greatest

T Bone Burnett may draw on the past, but there’s not a retro moment on his new record, The True False Identity. This is 21st century rock ’n’ roll.
T Bone Burnett may draw on the past, but there’s not a retro moment on his new record, The True False Identity. This is 21st century rock ’n’ roll, a mix of treated guitar chords and clanging junkyard rhythms that creates a dark, heady musical soundscape. Much like Burnett’s career, it never stops moving forward, and never stops pulling the attention in several ways at once. T Bone Burnett may draw on the past, but there’s not a retro moment on his new record, The True False Identity. This is 21st century rock ’n’ roll, a mix of treated guitar chords and clanging junkyard rhythms that creates a dark, heady musical soundscape. Much like Burnett’s career, it never stops moving forward, and never stops pulling the attention in several ways at once. Burnett loves juxtapositions. Even the title is a play on opposites—the world and the individuals who inhabit it are locked into a constant struggle between the yin and the yang. In verse that’s alternately biting and playful, he conjures up sin and redemption, oppression and freedom, conformity and creativity and war and peace. Mankind is caught in a constant struggle between good and evil, he seems to say. Or maybe it’s between free expression and controlled product. Either way, the urgency of these bold and brilliant songs suggest he’s concerned that, for the moment, our better, freer instincts are losing out. “This is fear country,” he implores like a mantra midway through the album, echoing a theme established in the opening song, “Zombieland,” both of which suggest that Americans have been narcotized by lies put forth by government, corporations and spiritual leaders. Throughout the album, he indicts both those who lead and those who follow without resistance. As he puts it in “Earlier Baghdad,” “You numbed your conscience with sanctimony / I numbed mine with narcissism,” thereby indicting both conservative and liberal, the reborn and the sinful, in one fell swoop. If that sounds serious, it is—but Burnett can’t help but inject humor into his worldview. Part Noam Chomsky and part Groucho Marx, he leavens his cutting comments with witty wordplay and random jokes. “Cowboy with no cattle, warrior with no war,” he seethes in “Fear Country,” a blast pointed at the U.S. administration. But he finishes the verse by stating, with Groucho-like wryness, “They don’t make imposters like John Wayne anymore.” While the words burn a path, it’s the musical arrangements that clear the way and give the album its character. Even the tunes balance polar forces, with dirty sounds driven with a touch of elegance. He pits gritty rhythms that stomp and lurch against sophisticated accents of radio theater, gospel chorales, avant-garde sounds and white-noise guitar. In doing so, he merges the earthiest aspects of roots music and rock ’n’ roll with progressive and theatrical ideas, tying them together with the casual aplomb of a Broadway pro. Burnett has said he wanted to make the listener feel as if they were caught in a shaking maraca; he does just that, only the maracas are traveling through the bowels of an urban landscape on a runaway subway. He draws on plenty of familiar sounds, whether it’s the deep reggae dub of “Zombieland,” the rocking cha-cha-cha of “Baby Don’t Say You Love Me,” the Hendrix freakout of “Palestine Texas,” the gospel chant of “Everytime I Feel the Shift” or the Brechtian cabaret of “There Would Be Hell to Pay.” The True False Identity is Burnett’s first album in 14 years, but in that time he’s made a bigger mark as a producer of soundtracks and other artists than he did in the 20 years when he was making his own albums. His solo career is compiled in a two-disc compilation, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, a fine reminder of how incisive and creatively restless he’d been in the years when he was a critic’s favorite who gained notoriety collaborating with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue and pairing with fellow iconoclasts like Elvis Costello, for whom he produced the great King of America album. But Burnett’s imprint has been strongest while he wasn’t writing his own songs. He was the music director of the films Walk the Line and O Brother Where Art Thou?, both of which have had an enormous cultural impact driven by how powerfully their songs were presented. He’s worked on other soundtracks too, including those of The Horse Whisperer, A Mighty Wind and The Big Lebowski, and on the upcoming Wim Wenders/Sam Shepherd film, Don’t Come Knocking. He’s also been one of American music’s most interesting and unpredictable album producers, bringing an elegant touch to the recent Cassandra Wilson album Thunderbird, and the 2003 collaboration of Tony Bennett and K.D. Lang, Wonderful World. He’s helped roots-rock bands like Los Lobos, the Wallflowers, Counting Crows and Bodeans make their best albums, and he’s guided albums by Nashvillians Gillian Welch, Daniel Tashian and the late Roy Orbison. The times he fails as a producer are when he takes wholly distinctive artists like Ralph Stanley and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and tries to nudge them in new directions, along the way losing part of what makes them so singular. Burnett never completely stopped creating music of his own—for one, he contributed songs to the Cold Mountain soundtrack, another film where he served as music director. But The True False Identity is his masterwork, an album of tremendous ambition that succeeds at creating a tinted mirror of a society that Burnett sees decaying in front of him. “The world is not flat / The world is not round,” he sings in “Seven Times Hotter Than Fire.” “The world is square / But it won’t bring me down.” What Burnett sees is individual and artistic expression bowing down to the oppressive squelch of the world’s leading powers and their conformist needs. So even when he’s cracking jokes—as when he says “Someone stole my identity and I feel sorry for them” or “Machines always do just what you tell them to do / As long as you do what they say”—he knows the darkness at the heart of his humor comes from its truth. But if The True False Identity is meant as an indictment of how our culture no longer encourages great art or great expression, then he contradicts his theme with his own work. This album proves that outstanding work can still rise just at the moment it’s needed the most.

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