Album Review: Chris Stamey, “Lovesick Blues”
I’m not sure why – I can’t put my finger on it, but this is a special album. Released during the long and sometimes dreary winter months, this album immediately gives you warmth. The songs run the gamut of emotions in a way few albums I’ve heard in many years can do.
Stamey’s legend has already been carved several times over – as sideman to Alex Chilton, releasing Chris Bell’s only solo single while Bell was still alive; as founder and leader of The dB’s and with his now three-decades long solo career. But it seems to me, after several listens, this album is his masterpiece. Lovesick Blues is an album for a thinking adult. The lyrics are literary and paint some incredibly vivid word portraits – about love, longing, memory and disintegration. It reads like a novel. I hesitate to use the word, but for all intents and purposes, this is a concept album of cycles: the beginnings, joyful recollections and perspective of a relationship gone away. Stamey’s style is all his own – this is unquestionably his finest, strongest, most cohesive work; with sometimes baroque arrangements, the songs have a delicacy about them. I’m not sure if he’s influenced by (I know, I know) Brian Wilson or Burt Bachrach, but there is so much lush detail in the song structures, it’s hard not to draw those parallels.
Getting back to what I was saying about this album and the idea of “cycles” – the songs could be taken as “morning time” – when a relationship is new; to the afternoon – when the energy and emotions are at a joyful peak to the evening, when it’s all winding down. That was my first impression when I listened to to the album for the first time. And that works hand in hand about how I said this album “reads” – beginning, middle and conclusion. The bleak narrative of “London” from the perspective of a musician on the road and trying to reach his partner hours behind, complete with the sound of a subtle tea kettle whistle (“why don’t you stay home/I’ll call you when I get up/I’ve been thirteen hours on the motorway/I think the bass player quit”) is a musical novella – delicate, with acoustic guitar and strings. The same word applies for “Astronomy” – gentle, wistful (“lying in a field of grass/watching as the clouds go past/emptying the hourglass of time”) – melodic, rich with harmonies and near Beatlesque-psychedelic undertones. However, this album is not without the standard Chris Stamey slice of whimsy – “You & Me & XTC”, which is a classic “road” song (“we hit the road without a plan/trying to find a place to land/and the GPS was set to stun/with no address and no destination”). The clever use of toy piano is another mark of Stamey’s attention to detail in the instrumentation and arrangements. “If Memory Serves” is a wryly clever farewell look at a relationship that’s disintegrated; never maudlin but still with some sense of yearning (“but we must have left out the crucial part”…). The melody is playful, yet the sentiment is a sweet sadness.
This album is filled with emotion, color and the idea that the author – Chris Stamey – has lived it. And for that we can all be grateful. Let this album find a corner in your heart and your head.