Cracker's Greenland never specifically references that isolated island in the North Atlantic, but there's an aura of loneliness coursing through even its brightest songs that is perfectly in keeping with the record's namesake. Listening to Greenland is like booking passage into David Lowery's past, with ports of call in his old northern California Camper Van Beethoven stomping grounds, the British Isles, Spain, India, Morocco, and even Jamaica. Greenland is quite a trip, in other words, and Cracker's strongest record since their early-'90s high point, Kerosene Hat -- the antiquey cover art even seems culled from the same vintage thrift-store bins that provided Kerosene Hat's artwork. "Something You Ain't Got" opens Greenland with organ swells, barroom piano, High Plains lap steel, and guest harmonies from Caitlin Cary -- it's a reminder that Lowery has always excelled at these elegiac country-rockers. "Where Have Those Days Gone" is a propulsive road song that picks up momentum as it runs through Lowery's past. Lauren Hoffman's harmonies and B-3 make the choruses soar, and a memorable bridge contrasting cascading piano with Victor Krummenacher's high-octave basslines leads the song to the same resigned but redeemed destination as the cheekier "I Need Better Friends." The record's gentlest laments, "Fluffy Lucy" and "Night Falls," sound like outtakes from Sparklehorse's It's a Wonderful Life, which is not surprising since Lowery's occasional collaborator Mark Linkous plays on and co-produces both.
The record takes a more exotic turn with the tabla-and-sitar feel that infuses the brief "I'm So Glad She Ain't Never Coming Back," which is what a country weeper written in New Delhi might sound like. Greenland's centerpiece is "Sidi Ifni," a trance-inducing half-raga/half-blues with an epic widescreen feel courtesy of thick organ swirls, acres of reverb guitar, and a blissfully disorienting crescendo midway through. Lowery wanders on a six-minute journey through the empty alleys, deserted souks, and abandoned consulates of a crumbling seaside town that was the last outpost of the Spanish before Moroccan independence. Images of "lethargy, decay, and forgotten loves" match the song's hypnotic downward pull, and the closing stanza ranks with Lowery's finest writing. "I drink gin with the old expats/We are broken things/From a broken past/And it comes near/But just out of grasp/The alchemist words/That would bring her back." Taken together, the imagery and hallucinatory sonics would make "Sidi Ifni" the perfect soundtrack for one of Paul Bowles' sinister North African stories. But the audio passage to foreign locales doesn't end there. Another of Greenland's many pleasant surprises is "Better Times Are Coming Our Way," a slice of syncopated white-boy reggae with infectious dub echoes not heard since Joe Strummer retired to the great reggae hall in the sky.
Yet even when Cracker indulge their hard rock inclinations -- which is where their previous records often suffered -- Greenland's rockers benefit from well-placed, similarly exotic accents and/or dynamic shifts. "Riverside" has enough of these -- staccato acoustic strums, keening Casio -- to keep the song interesting; "Minotaur" alternates between spacy blues and choruses built on stampeding riffs; and "Gimme One More Chance" pulses with menace and leads to a towering Johnny Hickman solo. Even what normally might constitute a silly throwaway, like the penultimate "Everybody Gets One for Free," is a Stonesy rocker with Billy Preston-like organ that bristles with energy and features Lowery's Dr. Seuss/nonsense lyrics, "I was driving in my car/It was filled up with yams/For no obvious reason/That's just who I am." By the time the country-tinged disc-ender "Darling We're Out of Time" runs its mournful course, there's a sense that Cracker have delivered their most honest and emotionally compelling record, and quite possibly their best.