NASHVILLE, TN. (www.rodneycrowell.com) - In 2001, after a six year hiatus, Rodney Crowell re-started his career. Of course, as a blue-ribbon songwriter and gifted producer, Crowell's career had never stopped. But for a long while he had craved something different, something both broader and closer-to-the-bone, with regard to the albums that bore his name.
"I was feeling around in the dark, but I knew I was going to find it," says Crowell about the elusive artistic turn he felt determined to discover and execute. His acclaimed collection 'The Houston Kid', with its autobiographical foundation, began the Texas native and Nashville resident's intense new story, followed three years later by 'Fate's Right Hand'. Now comes 'The Outsider', the third offering of Crowell's artistic transformation.
He knows that, as a songwriter, he has and does enjoy success; Keith Urban's recording of Crowell's "Making Memories of Us" recently spent five weeks atop the country charts, and this is no isolated incident. "Now and again mainstream artists will call me looking for songs," Crowell says. "Sometimes I'll have one, other times I won't. To be honest, apart from the collaborations with some wonderfully talented people, the reason I live in Nashville - it's not the gist of how I conduct myself as an artist - is that I know that I'm not too far away from an occasional explosion that sends money to subsidize the records I want to make. I've basically made my last three albums out-of-pocket."
On 'The Houston Kid' Crowell approached the narrative element of his work with a new-found concentration and acuity; on 'Fate's Right Hand' he stayed with his narrator, but viewed him from increasingly more emotional and psychological perspectives. "With 'The Houston Kid'," Crowell says, "I was working with a composite of myself and of others I grew up around in Houston. I did grow up in a drunk, rowdy, domestically violent household, but so were all the other households around me. So that main narrator was myself. With 'Fates' Right Hand' I looked to articulate the interior spirituality of that kid, who was now living in an adult world."
'The Outsider' continues Crowell's emphasis on the frequently jarring present. It is an 11-song collection written and conceived during the past U.S. election year, a time during which Crowell was touring overseas with a straightforward rock band. "The basic Beatles line-up," Crowell says, "that's what it was - bass, drums, two guitars. That really influenced how I put the songs together, along with the fact that I was writing a lot of it while on tour, at hotels and on days off, much of the time in Europe. When we got to the studio, I realized that these songs meant basically two guitars, bass, and drums with minimal keyboards added - with the exception of a couple tunes produced more lushly." It is an album that begins with Crowell, on the talkative, hung-over "Say You Love Me," strongly delivering the line "I been up all night the night before/ My teeth are dirty, my eyes are sore."
Recorded outside Nashville, produced by Crowell and Peter Coleman, 'The Outsider' brims with stripped-down electricity, ignited emotion, and experimental energy and space. Crowell describes the aura of the album like this: "as if our clothes were set on fire." In songs such as "The Obscenity Prayer (Give It to Me)" - a "greedy bastard prayer," in Crowell's word, in which a manic guy talks out of both sides of his mouth - and the boisterous "Don't Get Me Started" various narrators try to make sense of their outlooks, viewpoints shaped by a world Crowell himself finds distinctly troubling.
"I remember thinking while I was playing those concerts 'I'm an expatriate'," Crowell says. "I was walking the streets of Edinburgh, thinking that. I was letting the romance of that enshroud me, and then, being in a pub with rowdy drunks and feeling the hostility - not so much in Scotland, but a couple times in Belfast. I was thinking, 'I gotta play this close to the chest, and make my points.' I had to use some guile and subtlety because I knew that the blanket statement - which was: 'Don't blame me, I'm not like the rest of those bastards' - wouldn't work. I think that's why I set 'Don't Get Me Started' in a bar. The narrator, the list of things that are bugging him - you know, the politicians and the corporations - that's all the stuff that's bugging me, too. But I made him, as a narrator, drunk and belligerent, too. He's proceeding with a certain amount of awareness that he can also be a bore."
The album contains some of Crowell's finely wrought balladry, such as "Beautiful Despair," which beings with a memory of hearing "Dylan drunk at 3 AM," and the hopeful climactic mid-tempo "We Can't Turn Back," as well as a version of Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm," sung as a duet with Emmylou Harris. But the dominant mood of this Crowell collection is less deliberate.
"I was kind of processing some anger, too," Crowell says. "Most of these songs were written in the election year, and I was not happy with what I was seeing, you know. My rule of thumb is always show-don't-tell. I don't think it will ever be my style take a big mallet and just slam it, bust the window out with it. I have to get there in a more subtle way."
That subtle way, though, coincides with instinctiveness on 'The Outsider'. "This was more of an instant-feeling expression," Crowell says. "I was in Europe. I was pissed-off. I was interested in my contribution to this night-after-night, stripped-down band, playing in clubs and theaters. That's what triggered what I ended up doing with these songs - that feeling. It was all there, then we were in the studio, and now we have a record."
It's the latest, rawest, most subtle chapter yet from an artist who has said that he "strip-searches the human condition for signs of a song."