Despite being in the midst of one of the most prolific periods of his career – releasing four albums and one EP between 2016 and 2021 – Kurt Wagner was questioning things. “What the fuck am I doing?” he asked himself last year, momentarily trapped in a period of despair, before getting back to work and making another album.
The resulting record is one steeped in reflection. With the backdrop of Wagner acting as primary caregiver for his father, along with his own uneasiness around life and ageing, mortality naturally seeped into his consciousness and an album exploring the essence of life, self and spirituality – in a non-religious manner, that is – floated out.
On the opening “His Song Is Sung”, a track rich in engulfing yet dramatic strings, tender piano and warm production, Wagner sings: “I confess I have no purpose/I’m not complaining/Now these days are measured by the number/Thirty summers from today”. It may present an image of an artist 30 years into his career, who was already a late bloomer, feeling a little at sea or losing their creative footing, but the artistic transition that follows on the album indicates anything but.
Lead single “Police Dog Blues” is a beautiful encapsulation of such a journey; a vast amalgamation of styles that takes in soaring soul, sprawling rock, subtle jazz, buoyant funk and that distinctive Lambchop quality that comes from the simple but potent combination of Wagner’s low-hum honeyed vocals with delicate piano (here provided by Andrew Broder). It captures the tone of an album that is rich in ambition, scope and innovation, and for which genre categorisation feels utterly futile.
On 2021’s Showtunes, a sonic departure in itself, there was an almost ambient stillness, the album unfurling along in gently rippling waves. While there are similar moments to be heard, such as on the deeply atmospheric “So There”, there’s much more dynamism, punch and vitality here. “Little Black Books’’ is as close to dance music as Lambchop has ever been. It’s a track that glides from futuristic electronic funk to snapping beats coupled with melodic stabs of piano and wobbly Auto-Tune. It’s a bold and expansive song that feels emblematic of where Wagner is as an artist: making ceaselessly unpredictable music. Perhaps this track’s closest musical relationship is to be found with contemporary hip-hop as it increasingly embraces more dance-leaning elements.
“Whatever Mortal” begins as almost straight-up jazz, with bouncing double-bass standing firmly as the skeleton of the song, before spirited gospel vocals appear in harmony around an infectiously melodic refrain. This soon becomes enveloped by a stirring brass section that lifts the song into a rousing section before it settles into a distinctly unique groove, existing somewhere between jazz, soul and introspective electronica. The opening lyrics of “I am not OK with this but here we are” once again suggest a disaffected state, but the musical counterpoint employed takes the song from a position of seeming despondency into an enhanced state of musical joy. It’s a tactic deployed throughout the record, one with moments of intense melancholia that can border on the depressive, but are constantly elevated by surprise musical bursts. This creates great clashes of feelings, as reflective soul-searching and rousing joy collide simultaneously. If Wagner is shooting for something fundamentally spiritual here, perhaps it’s linked to the overwhelming feeling of finding surprising beauty and connection in life during a period when it seems most unlikely. The huge list of contributors for this album reads more like a community than a credit list, and this kind of collective energy is clearly something Wagner has harnessed.
These endless twists and turns that Wagner keeps making musically – that in many ways have come to define Lambchop’s late career – may feel disorientating for some early-day adopters used to that more classically Americana sound. However, despite being born from a period of deep questioning and self-reflection, The Bible doesn’t feel like a confused or lost musician chasing the zeitgeist or wandering aimlessly. Instead, it’s the work of a focused artist who is consistently attempting to stretch out the parameters of their own ever-expanding sonic world.
Last year, City Slang label boss Christof Ellinghaus told Uncut, “Kurt doesn’t have a single nostalgic bone in his body”, and that’s no more evident than here. Everything about The Bible suggests a fierce, steely gaze locked onto the horizon, proving that maybe more artists should stop for a moment and ask, “What the fuck am I doing?” In this instance, it has resulted in yet another late-career highlight.