Modern Art has to be the most confounding recording in Tom Russell's catalog. That he is a songwriter of epic proportion there can be no doubt. His decision here to issue a recording of half originals/co-writes and half covers, three of which are basically epitaphs (including one of questionable taste), is just the beginning of what makes it problematic. First the good news: Russell's "The Kid from Spavinaw," the greatest song that has thus far, and probably ever will be, written about Mickey Mantle, is easily the most moving thing on the set (the other is "The Dutchman"). Told in the first person, it relates much of Mantle's upbringing and his regrets, with the glory years alluded to more than spoken of. Gurf Morlix's pedal steel playing floats through the melody like an Oklahoma wind, carrying Russell's lyrics into the same immortality that Mantle's myth exists in. It's one the greatest songs Russell has ever written -- which is saying a lot. Emmylou Harris' "Ballad of Sally Rose" is one of three duets with Nanci Griffith (who adds little to the project -- even on her own "Gulf Coast Highway" -- except name recognition). It's tepid and feels devoid of focus. The story is not convincing in this reading. Russell's "Muhammad Ali" is downright embarrassing; written with a sub-basement Jimmy Buffett faux-Caribbean rhythm, its lyric sounds hackneyed and insincere, full of clumsy rhymes and a narrative that reveals nothing about the man or the myth.
One of the two most troubling moments comes in a cover of "American Hotel" by the late songwriter Carl Brouse, a peer of Russell's in talent if not reputation. Brouse died a few weeks before the recording was made and Russell talks about Brouse, whose life eerily mirrored the subject of the song, Stephen Foster. Russell begins with a strange, non-committal spoken word introduction that talks about Brouse's imagining of Foster in his last days dying a penniless alcoholic in New York's American Hotel (and likens it to Toulouse-Lautrec's passing in the film Moulin Rouge!). First, this version is on no way in the same league with Brouse's own; it's devoid of emotion and commitment. Secondly, the question has to be asked, why didn't Russell -- a longtime acquaintance of Brouse's -- record this song when it mattered, while he was alive? Russell has played it in his live set from time to time, and appearing the way it does here is odd to say the least. Let's just say it doesn't feel like a "fitting" tribute to an artist who deserved better than he got. The other is on a narrated medley of a title taken from a book and poem by Charles Bukowski, "Crucifix in a Death Hand," crossed with a lackluster cover of Warren Zevon's "Carmelita." Again, at the time of this writing, Zevon is currently dying of lung cancer, and one has to wonder if this track would have made the album if Zevon weren't ill. These are questions, not accusations, that unfortunately the readings of the songs don't answer.
"Racehorse Haynes" and "Isaac Lewis," story-songs that Russell is peerless in writing, alternately offer both his first-person accounts and reporter's eye for detail in picaresque couplets that make the lyrics become images cut from history and serve as virtual allegories for our own time. Andrew Hardin's guitar playing adds swathes of textured shade and color to Russell's melodies. The two have played together so long it's as if they are one person. "Tijuana Bible" is a smoking story of an infamous Hollywood murder. Eliza Gilkyson's depth and soul add an entire dimension to Russell's narrative. The song is a rockabilly shuffle, and a horrific song of a murder and a grave robbery that is chilling, intense, mysterious, and out of Hollywood legend. Modern Art is an album that is not without rewards, but it has so many questions attached, it is like a cipher; at times it feels cynical, jaded, and lost, like a journey that turns back on itself instead of reaching a destination with purpose.