“Mr. Met,” the most lovely, haunting and intricate tune on Lambchop’s cryptically titled Mr. M, is not a tribute to the beloved Hall of Fame mascot, and does not include the lyrics “stitches in my face / bitches at my place.” But, in other respects, it continues a return to Lambchop’s simpler virtues that began in earnest with 2008’s OH (Ohio), the 20-year-old band’s most well-received album in years.
There’s the casual lowbrow humor and aw-shucks irreverence in Kurt Wagner’s understated croak (”You made me swear / Like used software,”, he sings, describing a troubled relationship) that leaven his observant, literate intellect. And there’s the ensemble’s elegantly shabby, broadly illuminating homage to a decade’s worth of traditions in popular Southern music, from Grand Ole Opry (the goofy, resigned pathos of “The Good Life (Is Wasted)”) to Muscle Shoals (the soaring arrangement and laid-back swing of “Gar”). After the cinematic sweep of the 2000 benchmark Nixon, a couple of mid-aughts albums of almost-unlistenable gentleness (Is a Woman and Damaged), and a lot of cast-offs, “Nashville’s most fucked up country band” has returned to where it once fucked around.
The band’s lush AM-gold lullabies and Wagner’s wry humor have always been a delivery system for a certain uneasiness, a nagging discomfort with the mundane, a sense of repressed grief (if not a wounded pride in its repression). However dreamy the lush strings render them, Wagner’s domestic portraits are always tinged with regret. And his wit can be toxic, or at least passive-aggressive, as on “If Not I’ll Just Die” and “Nice Without Mercy,” a brilliant song title even for him.
On Lambchop’s more ambitiously simple albums, such as Mr. M, that darkness is all the more affecting.