James McMurtry was an outstanding songwriter right out of the box, but learning the art of record-making took a while for him, and he was close to 20 years into his recording career when he cut 2008's Just Us Kids, his best and most effective album. If you'd imagine that McMurtry would use Just Us Kids as a template for his next studio album, you'd be selling the man short; 2015's Complicated Game is a similarly superb showcase for McMurtry's songwriting, but the feel and the themes of the album are decidedly different, and it demonstrates the man has more than one card up his sleeve. McMurtry brought in modern-day swamp rocker C.C. Adcock to co-produce Complicated Game with Mike Napolitano, and while the album doesn't reflect most of Adcock's sonic hallmarks, the work has a looser and more casual feel than Just Us Kids, with a back-porch immediacy in the performances and a sound that's uncluttered and accurate but just the slightest bit overheard, which meshes well with the tenor of McMurtry's songs. Small-p politics and the malaise of the George W. Bush years informed most of the tunes on Just Us Kids, but Complicated Game deals more in character studies, with McMurtry singing of people trying to make sense of life on America's fringes rather than dwelling on the larger forces that brought them there, though it's clear that the characters in "Carlisle's Haul" and "South Dakota" can't help but think they live in places that aren't what they used to be. But the greatest strength of Just Us Kids is also what makes Complicated Game another winner -- McMurtry is one of the best American songwriters in the game, inhabiting the lives of the people he writes about with an unaffected sincerity (the fact the very Texan McMurtry can sing convincingly from the point of view of a New England fisherman or a Long Island working stiff says a lot), and filling his lyrics with telling details that are sometimes witty, sometimes affecting, and always brilliantly observed. And McMurtry has learned the art of effortlessly selling his songs, both in terms of his vocals and his interplay with the studio band. The difference between the guy who made 1989's Too Long in the Wasteland and the man who cut Complicated Game is the more mature McMurtry has figured out how to deliver the fine songs he writes and get their qualities on tape, and Complicated Game confirms he's not only remembered this valuable lesson, he's finding new ways to refine what he knows, and this album is another triumph for one of America's most rewarding tunesmiths.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming