You know the joke, “It might look like i’m doing nothing, but at the cellular level I’m really quite busy”? Bruce Hornsby’s post-1990 career is a little like that. As far as a lot of people are concerned, Hornsby may as well have quit making music after his last release with the Range, 1990’s A Night on the Town, but to those who have kept listening, that album only marks the spot where things really started to get interesting. From 1993’s Harbor Lights on, Hornsby has moved steadily away from the tasteful piano pop that made him a star, indulging a wanderlust that has been reflected both off his records (during his stint with the Grateful Dead, for example) and on. Along the way, he’s worked with a long and varied list of virtuosos, including Pat Metheny and Bela Fleck, and cut an eclectic swath with his albums, dabbling in programmed beats (2002’s Big Swing Face), bluegrass (2007’s Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby), and jazz (Camp Meeting, recorded with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette). Even though he’ll forever be popularly identified with “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain,” those songs really only begin to scratch the surface of Bruce Hornsby’s music.
This is not to suggest that Hornsby’s more recent music is necessarily more difficult than the hits you remember, or even that he’s above copping to commercial pressures once in awhile: his last pop album, 2004’s Halcyon Days, was a piano-dominated affair, featuring plenty of radio-friendly songs and guest appearances from Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Sting. It was a slow pitch down the middle for Columbia — one which the label, predictably, barely managed to turn into a bunt. Now on the Verve Forecast roster — and having tamed his more idiosyncratic impulses, at least for now — Hornsby returns to the pop fold with the 12-track Levitate.
Unlike Hornsby’s previous albums, Levitate (co-credited to his longtime band, the Noisemakers) isn’t cut from whole cloth; instead of focusing on a specific vibe or genre, he spends his time here weaving disparate sonic ingredients. It’s an album as musically rowdy and colorful as its cover, a bright quilt of sound with room for everything from full band workouts (“Space Is the Place,” featuring a Clapton cameo) to moody, rhythm-driven pop (“Invisible” and the title track) to more stereotypical Hornsby fare (“Continents Drift,” “Here We Are Again”). The one thread that stitches them all together is Hornsby’s decision to forego piano solos. “I really wanted the focus to be on the songs,” he’s said, and this batch is up to the task, at once highlighting both the unbridled live energy of the Noisemakers and the fearless studio experimentation that has enlivened some of Hornsby’s finest late-period work. In the context of his other albums, Levitate is sort of a fusion of Halcyon Days and 1998’s two-disc Spirit Trail, melding the honed songcraft of the former with the funkier, machine-assisted rhythm tracks of the latter.
Lyrically, Hornsby has always been more of a storyteller than your average pop songwriter, and Levitate is no exception; he kicks things off with “The Black Rats of London,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the parasites that helped shape colonial American history, as well as an equally tongue-in-cheek rebuke to their limitations (“Where were the black rats / When we needed them the most / There were slave owners to infect / And the Joe Mengeles of the American West”). From there, Hornsby draws inspiration from subjects as varied as Teddy Roosevelt (the buzzing second single, “Prairie Dog Town”) and the old “angel on one shoulder, devil on the other” conundrum (the seesawing “Michael Raphael”). He works in a couple of new tricks, too — like “Paperboy,” which has the fat, braided chords and ominous overcast of a good Steely Dan track, or “Invisible,” which combines twinkling synths and a thudding rhythm track with layered harmonies. But for all the tinkering, some things remain the same — the last track on any Hornsby record provides some easy melodic release, and Levitate‘s closer, the gracefully rambling “In the Low Country,” fits the bill beautifully.
If you’re looking for an album that works as a single, cohesive block of music, then Levitate might strike you as a disjointed affair — but since leaving the Range for the wild frontier, Hornsby has treated his music as a journey that requires a willingness to follow, no matter how unusual the direction might seem. With this album, he’s arrived at one of his most fruitful destinations. His commercial history suggests it won’t be a very crowded place, but that’s everyone else’s problem; don’t let it be yours, too. Another highlight in a career with plenty of them, Levitate is an album well worth hearing — and hearing again, and again, and again. Start listening at Hornsby’s Verve Forecast page.
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