Out Here

Manifest destiny

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It Had to Happen
James McMurtry
Sugar Hill Records

In 1995 two songs came out that were sharp expressions of the burden that the freewheeling '60s left its children: the Charlie Sexton Sextet's "Plain Bad Luck and Innocent Mistakes" and James McMurtry's "Fuller Brush Man." McMurtry continues to wrestle with this voice--that of the first post-Woodstock (and post-Altamont) generation, the kids who grew up knowing just a little bit too much to believe in the lies of old poetry--with It Had to Happen, a superb slice of American roots/bar-band storytelling and his first since being dropped by Columbia last year.

McMurtry is a songwriter's songwriter, unobtrusively literate yet still possessed of common experience, insightful without being pedantic, and subtle without becoming precious. Rootless, uninspired--but still enduring--McMurtry's characters cycle between ennui and effort, nostalgia and nihilism. Who else could inhabit a song like "Peter Pan," with a chorus of "I can't grow up/'cause I'm too old"? Throughout Happen McMurtry explores his favorite themes--people on the fringes ("...you pose no danger/And you're such a disgrace," from "Paris"), hauntings from the past ("12 O'Clock Whistle"), and how they've affected the present and future ("Sixty Acres"). The existentialism of distance--another favorite theme, brilliantly contained in the couplet "Telephone rings in an empty room/Does it make a sound?" from 1989's Too Long in the Wasteland--comes around again on "For All I Know," when McMurtry meets an old object of desire. "Last time I saw you/It could've been Christmas Eve/It could've been someone's birthday/It could've been make believe," he sings to a friend who now exists completely out of context.

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His matter-of-fact singing perfectly matches his wryly cynical lyrics, but McMurtry is more than a wrung-out hipster pissing on everybody else's parade. He presents his observations like Mark Twain, without sanctimony or judgment and with a thread of humor--thin, perhaps, but never absent. It's a dry wit that lends itself to his brilliantly succinct descriptions, as in "Peter Pan," when he sets the stage for the eternal man-boy with "Beer cans to the ceiling/Ashtray on the floor/Laundry on the sofa/Need I say more." Even though Pete seems mired in an eternal Never Never Land, however, he still dreams: "Let's go chase tornadoes/Just me and you/Don't often catch 'em/But man when you do," like a kid who can't remember anything about his dad except the old man telling him to get back up on that horse. Despite a sometimes-bleak and jaded eye, McMurtry finds such dreaming as inevitable as the title of his new album implies.

--Matt Weitz

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