Marshall Crenshaw's superb 1982 debut album was dominated by songs about girls (which puts it in a league with roughly 85 percent of all pop records), and he's never stopped writing and singing about love. But over the years, just as Crenshaw has matured, so has his perspective on his dominant theme, and the hard work of maintaining a long-term relationship and the high stakes of a love that goes wrong have played increasingly large roles in his music. Jaggedland, Crenshaw's tenth studio album and his first in six years, is the moodiest and most downbeat set he's released to date, and while it's not without humor (as well as the expected great songs and fine guitar work), it's still a more challenging listen than one might expect. "Right on Time" drops references to Bobby Vinton, Louis Jordan, and Frank Sinatra, but does so in the midst of a nightmare scenario where our hero falls into a wrinkle in space while looking for the woman he loves, while "Someone Told Me" is a melancholy meditation on a romance gone sour, "Stormy River" uses rough waters as a metaphor for an affair that brings more hurt than solace, and "Long Hard Road" sums up the album's mood in the line "No way around it/Being you and me sometimes takes its toll." Jaggedland isn't one of Crenshaw's happier efforts, but the craft of his songwriting is strong, and unlike his last several efforts, there are no covers padding out the running time. Crenshaw has also been given the opportunity to work with a solid studio band after cutting several albums one-man-band style, and having a rhythm section as good as Jim Keltner and Sebastian Steinberg on several cuts gives this a solid foundation for Crenshaw's great guitar work (Wayne Kramer of the MC5 also adds some potent riffs to "Stormy River," and slide guitar virtuoso Greg Leisz is also on hand for several cuts). Maybe the guy who sang "Someday Someway" is gone for good, but the edgier artist who has taken his place has made a compelling and powerful album, and if Jaggedland isn't always a barrel of laughs, it's the most impressive work Crenshaw has delivered in over a decade.
by Mark Deming