Rodney Crowell has long been one of country music’s most prolific and literate songwriters, but in recent years, he’s developed into the genre’s philosopher-king. His probing and thought-provoking work reached new heights with The Outsider, his stunning 2005 polemic.
The title of his new set, Sex & Gasoline, implies that this will be another album full of political stances and social commentary, but that’s not the case this time around. There’s little talk of gasoline or other political issues at all. The album does, however, deal quite a bit with the first half of its moniker, though sex doesn’t refer to intercourse in the context of this record; it refers to gender.
The title track establishes the theme of the record immediately, providing a searing opening to the set. Much like he did so effectively with “The Obscenity Prayer” on his previous album, Crowell speaks in the voice of a corrupting society. This time, the cutting messages are sent to women, who are told that the ideal they must measure up to is an early teenage Lolita, and that their only salvation is the surgical knife. “I Want You #35″ has a similar edge, as he tells of a rich girl taught from an early age to “bow your head” and “lift your skirt.”
When speaking in the voice of society, Crowell paints women as being victim to nearly insurmountable hurdles, but when singing of them as individuals, he awards them all the power, an interesting dichotomy that plays out through the course of the record. “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design” finds him wanting to be a woman for a brief time, so he could feel that power and find out if he’s really just a joke. But when he wishes to be a woman president in a later verse, he is certain that he will end up shot or dying somewhere alone.
Gender issues are difficult to navigate and despite some brilliant moments along the way, Crowell’s message is often muddled. “Truth Decay” is one of the few songs on the album with a beautiful melody, but the lyrics never live up to its enticing title. “Who Do You Trust” has a funky groove, but underneath its layers of contempt is the message that you can’t trust anyone at all.
It’s the fatalism of that song and many others here that makes this one of Crowell’s lesser efforts, certainly when compared to his recent output. The strong undercurrent of optimism and faith in humanity that has always been present in his best work is depressingly absent here, and the monotonous arrangements only dampen the mood. Even when he sings on the album’s closing track that he’s “Closer to Heaven” then he’s ever been, there’s a sense that it isn’t nearly close enough.
It’s no surprise that the best tracks on the album are when Crowell lets a little light shine in, as he does in the tender ballad “The Night’s Just Right”, singing “As long as I can feel you next to me, I’ll know I’m where I’m supposed to be.” And the album’s reason for being may be revealed in his moving song for his daughter, “I’ve Done Everything I Can”, which couples the obvious sadness of allowing your child her freedom with the pride that you’ve raised her well enough that she can thrive on her own.
If Sex & Gasoline is a disappointing record, it’s only in comparison to the glorious heights reached by Crowell’s previous three albums. He remains one of the most interesting songwriters working today, of any genre, and the best tracks here are worthy additions to a catalog that has long earned him a slot in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Hopefully next time out, there will be more performances of that caliber than there are this time around.