An autopsy of Robbie Fulks’s major-label debut, 1998’s Let’s Kill Saturday Night on Geffen, reveals all the telltale earmarks of a label-footed career moonshot crashed in a cornfield. Start with a songwriter who had established himself as a wickedly smart student of roots/country narrative – which was still hip and subversive in those early No Depression years – on a pair of indie releases. Call in a few celebrity cameos and auspices from across the implicated genres (Vince Gill, Sam Bush, Al Anderson from NRBQ). Pump up the crunch factor by ten, as Steve Earle had done to his own dark, literate country a decade before on the proto-grunge/roots Copperhead Road.
And voilà? You’ve got a fabulously unspectacular record that doesn’t rock nearly as hard as it seems to think it does, and in which most of the verbal subtleties of Fulks’s writing are crushed under the impassioned American Bard rock ambition and the moneyed sound.
But the good news is that A) the album got lost in a Geffen shakeup, allowing Fulks to bury that particular misfit self in relative anonymity, and that B) everything, literally everything that Fulks has done since is staggeringly good – like, crushing-body-blows-and-uppercuts- to-anyone-who-would-consider himself-a-songwriter good.
The turnaround was immediate. 2000’s The Very Best of Robbie Fulks sounds like a conscious corrective restoration, taking Fulks’s songs home to twang, honky-tonk and Bakersfield: settings modest and mete that allow the listener to marvel at his astonishingly witty and well-crafted lyrics as they pass by in familiar vehicles. But 2001’s self-produced Couples in Trouble is something else entirely. It’s the dark, intense, naturalistic and genre-defying opus that Let’s Kill Saturday Night so fabulously wasn’t. It’s a hole-in-one on a mulligan.
This year – why, just this very August – Fulks released Gone away Backward, and I am already out of adjectives before I start. With banjos, mandolins and fiddles, this drumless set plies standard country/folksong forms and tropes at the PhD level. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that Fulks has become the best lyricist ever. That’s the problem: He has used all his craft to dig deep to a place beyond craft. The unfailing wit, the blue-ribbon hooks and impeccable phrases are here in force, and they don’t mean a thing. Every last song nails the heart dead. Our hearts are such gouged dartboard cork from so many years of pop that I wonder how anyone can make a single dart stick anymore, let alone an album of them.
For a moment here, accept my Apollonian/Dionysian retread theory that one pole of the axis of taste is “deep human feeling expressed in traditional forms” and at the other pole is “unfettered imagination and novelty gone wild.” Of course everybody wants some of both, but most people’s priorities incline at least slightly one way or the other: toward the affirmations of experience well-wrought in music or toward the adventures of the imagination loosed from tradition and inherited form.
I usually consider myself somewhat proudly and stubbornly in the “imagination” camp. I nod respectfully at the armies of roots and folk masters out there, while I generally prefer to weather the bumps and embarrassments and awkward and narrow musical/lyrical escapes of a James Mercer (the Shins) or an Andy Partridge (XTC) as they search for a new tune and maybe even a new sentiment. That’s my tribe, you know.
But now, here’s this Robbie Fulks to mess everything up – Robbie Fulks who has hardly ever written a song that doesn’t sound like a thousand other songs I know, and yet who wins. Robbie Fulks just wins.
Robbie Fulks, Friday, September 27, 9 p.m., $25/$20 member, Marbletown Multi-Arts, 3588 Main Street, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-4143, www.cometomama.org.