“We Can’t Make It Here,” the relentlessly calm, guitar-and-kickdrum-powered opener of James McMurtry’s 2005 album, Childish Things, was also the first shot of political plainspeak across this veteran singer-songwriter-bandleader’s usual Texastentialist panorama of gray-sky lucidity and neon highway jungles. “Cheney’s Toy,” the first single from McMurtry’s new (and built like a brick shithouse) Just Us Kids, lies leaden on raised expectations. Oh, it’s expertly droning, buzzing torture—appropriate for its subject, but duh. Why bother with such an easy target, especially since his characters have always struggled with the personal politics of need and greed, dust and lust. Less obviously, “Hurricane Party” ripples and bounces against the earth, against graves; along “Fireline Road,” a junkie’s shovel-blade epitaph/mile marker reads: “She couldn’t even feel bad, without the stuff.” Kissin’ cousin to that fella with a “Freeway View,” finally back in the game, and swept away by the piano-reeling feeling that he might still win or lose. Ditto, basically, the more cautious citizen in “You’d a’ Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die),” which takes hold in a Cohenesque, slippery way; plus, McMurty can rise from a moan to a wail, while Cohen can’t.
Funny expression, you’d a’ thought. It ironically signals: “You did think, you expected that things coulda-shoulda-woulda worked out such a way, but they didn’t.” Yet saying it that bluntly, that flatly, that wordily, is what happens when things really go wrong, in McMurtry’s lesser songs, lesser lines. But he’s always here to try to twist reality’s wires some more, just so, and leave a little room to move. “You’d a’ thought we’d know better by now.”
James McMurtry and his Heartless Bastards play the Bowery Ballroom May 1