Triage finds Rodney Crowell reflecting on life, mortality and greed in a magisterial fashion.
‘Triage’, Rodney Crowell’s 18th album, is, like so many others these days, informed by Covid although much of its substance predated the pandemic. Back then Crowell had other things on his mind – a recent illness had led to a diagnosis of a chronic neurological condition and then there was the almighty clusterfuck in The White House – and early recordings had reflected this. The album was almost complete when Covid struck and the world paused spinning for a while.
Crowell used his isolation time to rework several of the songs. According to producer Dan Kobler, “When the pandemic set in, some version of the record was near completion. But with Rodney’s tour schedule wiped clean, he found himself quarantined with his wife, Claudia, two dogs, and a pen and paper. More songs presented themselves. Old songs were discarded. New and improved verses came more clearly into view. Masked up, he returned to the studio to re-record new lyrics and lay down the framework for three more songs.”
Clearly, contemplation works well for Crowell as ‘Triage’ is a richly rewarding endeavour. Assured, warm, mature, and, ultimately suffused with humanity, love and hope. Crowell wades into the mire but, as he says in the liner notes regarding the song, ‘Something Has To Change’ re its debt to songs by Sam Cooke and Dylan, he echoes Michelle Obama, “High bars set by the masters serve a purpose. To aim low is a form of disrespect.” The song, a powerful urban groove with its backing singers recalling Dylan’s Street Legal times, has Crowell singing “It’s greed not money through which evil works” as he hopes for better times.
Personal musings rub shoulders with wider concerns throughout the album. It opens with Crowell in confessional mode on ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’. The opening lines, “I’ve been a liar, I’ve been untrue, I’ve compromised myself but I’ll make it up to you,” sung over acoustic guitar, leads one to expect an album similar to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. The song however abruptly shifts gear as a jarring electric band crash in with a Celtic rock swirl and take it in a whole different direction. It’s the one misstep here. ‘Triage’ and ‘Transient Global Amnesia Blues’ relate to both human vulnerability and resilience, the ability to love and to transcend disaster. It’s a theme Crowell returns to at the end of the album on two songs. ‘Hymn #43′ is a sweetly optimistic and tender acoustic number which finds Crowell gently mocking those who claim to have God on their side while spouting hate. ‘This Body Isn’t All There Is to Who I Am’ closes the album on a philosophical note as he muses on the circle of life with a Zen-like acceptance that we all return to the source. Even the jaunty country number ‘One Little Bird’ and the gorgeous ‘Here Goes Nothing’ find Crowell reflecting on a life lived and choices made.
Two songs sidestep the reflections. ‘The Girl On The Street’, apparently inspired by a true encounter, is a poetic but grim portrait of a street urchin reduced to peddling her body. On an opposite tack, Crowell casts aside his musings for the barroom blues satire of ‘I’m All About Love’ where he name-checks many cultural icons. “I love Vladimir Putin and Benedict Arnold, and I’m happy to say, I even love Donald…” To be fair to him, he says in the song notes that, “I can’t honestly say that I love some of the folks I mention in the song, but I truly wish them no harm. Comeuppance? You bet.”
In the long run, ‘Triage’ is somewhat of a triumph. It finds Crowell at the top of his game as he expertly examines life’s casualties.