Chris Whitley’s itinerant childhood in the southern states seemed to be reflected in his restless musical output, a determined musical quest that often meant the last album was not necessarily a guide to the next and thus often a bit of a puzzle for fans. Whitley was never a great commercial success but was something of a musician’s musician and his status was perhaps summed up best by John Mayer:
“[Whitley’s] somewhat prostrated place in pop culture earned him a sidebar of an obituary, but to those who knew his work, it registers as one of the most under-appreciated losses in all of music“.
Whitley, a self-taught musician and educationally what used to be referred to as an, ‘early leaver’, was first spotted busking on the streets of New York in the early 1980s and for no reason I can divine was offered a plane ticket to Belgium where it was considered he might prosper. Subsequently, he stayed for 6 years, recorded a number of albums and played with a variety of musicians. It was Daniel Lanois in 1988 who spotted the potential and got Whitley a contract with Columbia.
1991 saw the release of the debut album, ‘Living With the Law’, and with it, two single releases that made the top forty charts, the title track and, ‘Big Sky Country’ and whilst this article comes under the Americana A – Z series it could easily feature under Classic Albums or even Forgotten Artists.
Whitley’s lyrics are not always straightforward, ‘Hallelujah mama, razzle-dazzle problem prophet’, from, ‘Big Sky Country’, doesn’t immediately connect – though it seems to be a love song. If this first album might be considered a career peak then it is because of something other than the sense of the words – though there are those critics that laud his ‘storytelling’ song-writing. Whitley has a great voice but a lot of his own songs sound better vocally as sound rather than sense. However in combination with his excellent guitar playing, often as not on his steel resonator, it is a captivating and sympathetically recorded sound. The album cover is an atmospheric picture of a handsome guitar slinger – every inch the potential star – and when played it does not disappoint. The whole package is wonderfully evocative, suffused with the feel of dusty boots, rusty engine blocks, hot sun, narrowed eyes and endless panoramas. ‘Big Sky Country’, indeed.
‘Living with the Law’ was Rolling Stones, ‘Most impressive debut album of the year’, even the New York Times chipped in with, ‘An album of intense brooding mystique …… a grainy masterpiece’.
‘Living With the Law’, was also named ninth best album of 1991 in the Pazz and Jop (sic) critics poll. It is also listed in Tom Moon’s 2008 book, ‘1,000 recordings to hear before you die’.
This album is a serious contender for one of the top ten Americana albums of all time. Whitley’s languid spacey take on the blues seemed to herald a style and a musician worth following for some time to come. Follow up, ‘Din of Ecstasy’, came as something of a surprise – a brash album with plenty of electricity but which always seemed hard on the ears – nothing special by any means, even if aptly named. As one fan put it in his review, ‘Not one of the winning qualities from the debut are present’. Pretty accurate and after the clarity of the initial offering we now heard some rather uninspiring grunge, or as the Times put it, ‘noise-rock‘.
Whitley recorded something between 13 and 16 albums between 1991 and 2004 depending on who’s counting, sometimes there were new highlights but nothing that seemed to touch the heights of his first offering. ‘Din of Ecstasy’, certainly divided fans and to be clear some loved it. Just prior to his passing Whitley recorded what might have been considered a return to form with good friend Jeff Lang, ‘Dislocation Blues’. It is well worth a listen.
An artist who moves on is to be admired and repetition can be dull – at the same time fans are entitled to have a view as to whether the progress is positive. Unfortunately, much of the later work seemed to have a frantic feel and the vocals were less impressive as he seemed to play with his voice rather than use it – the exact opposite of what made, ‘Living With the Law’, so noteworthy. Rarely again did we hear that open, spacey but warm production. It’s hard to knock a man who recorded work by artists as varied as Robert Johnson, Dylan, Lou Reed, James Brown, JJ Cale, The Clash, Nat King Cole, The Doors, Willie Dixon, The Flaming Lips, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin’ Wolf, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, The Passions, Prince, The Stooges and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Full marks for trying – and it’s eclecticism defined – but having listened again to a live version of Kraftwerk’s, ‘The Model’, on the, ‘At Martyrs’, album, it just didn’t work. Listen also to the mangling of his own, ‘Big Sky Country’, on that same album.
In the final analysis, anyone who made an album as brilliant as this debut would feel rightly proud, whatever the merits of subsequent offerings. It is a milestone and as a friend once suggested, first offerings can often be the highpoint with nothing to come after other than pale imitation or variations on a theme. The irony is that Whitley thought that, ‘Living With the Law’, was nothing like how he perceived his own sound – that it was too pretty, that what came after, for better or worse was the real deal. If Whitley had a sound of his own he thought it might be acid-rock. So it seems we were bound to be disappointed. Whilst capable of producing great music perhaps some of his own artistic filters were not as reliable as might have been hoped.
But what if……?
Chris Whitley died at the age of 45 in 2005 of lung cancer – a sad and far too early loss.