Billy Bob Thornton


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On his two previous recordings, Billy Bob Thornton offered eclectic mixes of songs and spoken word pieces, looking through rock & roll, blues, and country -- or at least his approximation of them. They were largely done in affairs where he was learning the craft of writing and arranging and finding out what worked -- and a lot of it did. On Hobo, Thornton, Randy Mitchell, and Matt Laug pare it all way back. Other than a pair of backing vocals by Mica Roberts and Dwight Yoakam, the trio did everything themselves. The album is centered around California, land of hopes and dreams, where sometimes the dream goes bust and other times it turns into a nightmare. It's an album about a mythical and actual frontier -- people still go there with stars in their eyes every day. But California is also the micro-view of America, and Thornton understands this implicitly. His songs are peopled with wanderers, the trapped, the doomed, and the transcendent. Slippery country- rock fuels this song cycle, where poetry is as important as sound. Perhaps no song sums up the truth of the hard-bitten better than "I Used to Be a Lion," a ballad where the bottom has dropped out, the road has come to an end, and the brokenness in the protagonist's voice has become a whisper instead of a roar; the protagonist can do nothing but look back. "Late Great Golden State" is an elegy and a statement of purpose where the sign says "Welcome One and All" -- visionaries, hucksters, and just plain normal folks looking for a better way. But expectations have to be left at the gate because this is no longer -- or perhaps never was -- the land of milk and honey, but a place where only the strong survive. You get the idea. Other tracks, like "O.C. Suicide" and "Gray Walls," which closes the album, offer dark sides of the illusion, but these are illusions that not only seduced but held their sufferers. And all the while there are the shimmering, slow, slippery guitars, even slower drums, and Thornton's road-weary, gravely voice threading it all together. It's not Steinbeck, and it's not pretty, but it is evocative, heartfelt, and a musical ride all its own. Recommended.

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