Fate's Right Hand is one of those albums that couldn't have been written or recorded at any other time in Rodney Crowell's career. Two years after his monumentally acclaimed The Houston Kid, Crowell has laid out his autobiography in sight and sound. His track record of hits -- written for himself as well as for other artists -- could have just gone on untarnished. But Fate's Right Hand is the flip side of The Houston Kid. Whereas the latter album is about the past, the former is about the present, not only in the artist's life, but in the lives of those around him, and in the question of life itself: why is it worth living and how can suffering be alleviated? While many will think this is blasphemy, Fate's Right Hand is the finest record Crowell has issued since Diamonds & Dirt and may turn out to be the finest of his entire career -- and that's saying a lot. Crowell and Pete Coleman produced this outing and enlisted the help of friends old and new: Steuart Smith, Pat Buchanan, Michael Rhodes, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Richard Bennett, Béla Fleck, Carl Jackson, Marcia Ramirez, Charlie McCoy, Kim Richey, and Will Kimbrough, to name a few. Crowell wrote the entire record himself; he digs deep for the ugly stuff in order to uncover what shines beneath it. The opener, "Still Learning How to Fly", is a song about living in the moment because the moment is all you have.Crowell claims he wrote it based on conversations he had with a friend dying of terminal cancer; about what comes in the afterlife. With dobros, electric guitars, and acoustic six-strings wrapping around each other in a big, airy mix painted with a Hammond B-3, it is one of Crowell's transcendent moments. Remember Diamonds & Dirt? Yeah -- like that. The title track ushers itself in around some warm, rounded bass tones, an organ, and maracas, as Crowell begins a series of seemingly unrelated non sequiturs. It's a pissed-off song that is as close to punk as Crowell will ever write. The notion of the transcendent is again present as it drenches Fleck's banjo riff in "Earthbound." Crowell makes the argument for living day-to-day in a world full of death and cynicism: where surrender is not an option until its time. All of this points to the most naked song Crowell has ever written: "Time to Go Inward," with both spoken word and sung refrains over fingerpicked acoustic guitars and electric dobros. It's a folk song about seeing; a country song about acceptance; a human song about the fear of what you might find when you look so deeply inside yourself. "The Man in Me" is about the negativity found there. It's a country-rock song that looks deeply into the mirror, doesn't like what it sees, and can't escape. Crowell penned "Preaching to the Choir" as an answer to "Time to Go Inward," but it's another mirror he sees: it's a bluesy rock tune touched by country gospel and bluegrass, and it smokes. There are a couple of other thoughtful moments here, cuts where Crowell is trying to make sense rather than preach -- which is what this album is all about: making sense of things rather than preaching about them. But it all comes to a head in "This Too Will Pass," a country song with a rockabilly shuffle that expresses the wisdom of those who believe and practice what Buddhism's Four Noble Truths and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous teach (no claim is made or intended for Crowell being part of either): impermanence, suffering, and joy -- and everything in between -- are merely the stages of cyclical existence. Happiness is possible. There is a way out, but you have it discover it for yourself.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek