Out Here

Manifest destiny

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.

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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