Close Ties is a dark and harrowing album, full of desperate sorrow and self-loathing regret.
If that comes as a surprise to you, I understand. The last time Rodney Crowell went full nostalgia was on a pair of albums – The Houston Kid and Fate’s Right Hand – that were defined by gratitude, positivity, and even a bit of giddiness over a man coming from East Houston poverty, surviving addiction, a broken marriage, and country radio’s fickle rejection, and emerging on the other side as a happy, fulfilled, and successful man.
Close Ties examines many of the same life events, but through a jaded eye. The album opens with “East Houston Blues,” a reflection on his hometown that zeroes in on its crippling poverty and how it robbed its youth of their God-given potential. “Life Without Susanna” mourns the loss of a close friend, but also the chance to make meaningful amends for how he treated her as she descended into the depths of depression: “The last time I saw her was close to the end. I cried like a baby for the shape she was in. No lipstick, no powder to soften the tone. The most worthy opponent that I’ve ever known was already gone.”
“I Don’t Care Anymore” is a cold assessment of the futility of the fame he spent chasing for so many years, noting that, “I was better off before I tried to make my mother proud.” He delves deeper in to the abyss on “Forty Miles From Nowhere,” as he surveys the loneliness of his mansion on the hill: “Friends don’t call like they used to, for reasons not unkind. ‘If there’s anything that we can do,’ rings hollow down a telephone line.” “Reckless” makes clear that he is willing to sacrifice the love of his life for a night of pleasure, as he notes that, “There’s so much more that I could be, but I’m feeling reckless.”
The moments of hope scattered among the set come in the form of other voices, as if they are the only ones able to get him out of his own head. “It Ain’t Over Yet” has able assists from Rosanne Cash and John Paul White, as they encourage Crowell to look past his mistakes and realize that redemption is still possible. The encouragement produces a beautiful tribute to Cash: “No you don’t walk on water and your sarcasm stings. But the way you move through this old world sure makes a case for angel wings.” Sheryl Crow eyes him a bit more warily on “I’m Tied to Ya,” observing that “Stand up guys have knocked me down before. But to rise with you above the petty politics of bliss, I’ll gladly make my heart an open door.”
The album closes with “Nashville 1972,” a touching tribute to the town he arrived in all of those years ago, where he could play Willie Nelson a terrible song on his guitar, and then go throw up in the front yard. There’s a sad wistfulness even in this celebration of the past, as he wishes that “Newberry and Buck White would drop on by the house tonight. Things have changed ’round here you bet, but it don’t seem much better yet.”
Close Ties isn’t an easy album to listen to, but it shows that Crowell’s pen remains both incisive and insightful after all this time.
Recommended Tracks: “Life Without Susanna,” “It Ain’t Over Yet,” “Nashville 1972”