straddling the rock/country line

Life Is Messy (Columbia)
Rodney Crowell

By Allen Howie

Over the course of seven albums, Rodney Crowell has established himself as a literate country artist with one foot planted firmly in rock 'n' roll territory. His eighth album, Life Is Messy, finds him still trying to decide between boots and blue suede shoes and the result is a moving, funny, complex set of songs. Coming at the end of the singer's twelve-year relationship with wife Rosanne Cash, you might expect the record to play to Crowell's dark side. But the artist has chosen instead to explore a whole range of moods and emotions and the music is stronger for it.

In the opening track, "It's Not for Me to Judge," Crowell surveys the glass walls around him, urging us by example to acknowledge our own faults and frailties before we point an accusing finger. "What Kind Of love," a ballad originally written for Roy Orbison, showcases Crowell's considerable talent as a singer, with harmonies courtesy of Linda Ronstadt and Don Henley.

Next up is the lecherous litany "Lovin' All Night," an uptempo ode to the pleasures of the flesh that finds Crowell grinning like an alley cat, even sliding in a little of the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling" as the song fades out. Then comes the stately title track, in which the singer muses on the perils of fame and the toll it takes on the lives it touches. It's difficult not to be moved when Crowell, with harmony from Steve Winwood, sings "I feel like Elvis Presley/At a very early age, they put you in a cage and put you out onstage."

The introspective "I Hardly Know How to Be Myself," one of the record's high1ights, is left in the dust by the rockabilly romp "It Don't Get Better than This," with a vocal that could have come out of Sun Studios in Elvis' heyday. The Sun connection lingers in the grim "Alone But Not Alone."

Crowell's eerie vocal raises the specter of Roy Orbison, his lonesome wail gradually finding a kind of peace in his solitude.

The sinister "Let's Make Trouble" catches the singer up to his old tricks, leading a young beauty down a dark road of seduction and betrayal. Following hard on its heels is "The Answer is Yes," in which a cocky Crowell leans back against the bar and serves notice that he's available, assisted once again by Steve Winwood in an uncharacteristically rowdy bit of harmonizing.

The record closes with "Maybe Next Time," binding up the frayed ends of a relationship with an honest admission of pain and regret that somehow remains optimistic. It's a fitting end to a journey that is alternately sad and hopeful, one which Crowell makes well worth the trip.