Nearly every album by nearly every so-called Texas Music artist includes a song or two in which “San Antone,” “The Guada-loop,” or some other proximate geographic landmark is intoned, often in verbal shorthand. But as co-shaper with Lyle Lovett of the sub-sub-genre, benevolent monarch Robert Earl Keen is not compelled to hew to Texas Music’s de facto strictures. Twang-free and wearing flip-flops instead of ropers, Keen takes potshots, makes pronouncements, and otherwise does what he wants—What I Really Mean, indeed. A faux radio broadcast of a mariachi song that guillotines an isolated, haunting mandolin riff becomes an actual drunken mariachi song performed by Keen and company in the studio. The ugliness of the satire is tempered by humor: The “border tragedy” turns out to be the nausea that makes an inebriated spring-breaker puke in the Mexican club where the singer and two locals are downing
Keen may be morally superior, but he’s just the messenger, like in “The Great Hank.” “Then there was the time I saw the great Hank Williams singing onstage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he was all dressed up in drag,” Keen recites quickly. “From his rose-red lips to his rhinestone hips, he belted out song after song as he drank from a brown paper bag.” Served in the swaying, lazy-day arrangement of wispy pedal steel, the song is just a harmless, humorous dream, backdropped by the oh-so-majestic humming of a male choir.
Saturated in imagistic fantasy, Keen’s words—even his socially conscious ones—go down smoothly. Though its lesson is unclear, “Long Chain” appears to be a parable, one couched in bluesy mandolin, tribal drums during the hook, and a no-bullshit contemplativeness in Keen’s voice, and in which a character in the song (possibly the visage of a slave) wears a chain of unfathomable length. The number shares with the leadoff track, “For Love,” a vibe whose chief attribute is catchiness but whose literary substance is a tad self-helpish in a koan-like way. As with his previous 10 full-lengths, the schmaltz does occasionally materialize on What I Really Mean, but mostly just when you go out of your way to summon it.