NPR recently did an album preview piece on the elusively multi-talented Dwight Yoakam, who even at his career’s “apex” has never seemed to be what the askers have asked him to be. The reviewer described 3 Pears, Yoakam’s newest of 25 career records and the first original in nearly seven years, as “weary and wary.” It seems to be an apt description to me, and apt in a way that lends the record to more, and not less, critical credibility. Yoakam seems tired of trying to be anything more than heterodox, to not just the Star-Spangled-Nashville Urban Cowboy, but also the rise-to-fame glory story it entails. He says as much in track 4:
So I keep trying every day / And if hurt from trying gets in my way
Then that’s the part I just try not to say / To my heart
I’ve been trying for so long / And this trying just goes on
As I keep trying to hold on / To my heart
Neither Yoakam’s music career nor his acting career (his film debut being 1993’s Red Rock West, as Nicholas Cage’s unbeknownst truck driver [see below]) have seemed to go where they ought to have gone. Dropping out of college and moving to Nashville, Yoakam’s brand of hillbilly honky tonk wasn’t marketable, and so he moved to California and found himself involved in the cowpunk scene along with The Blasters and X. There, with his low burritoed cowboy hat and his jean-heeled, sharp-toed cowboy boots, he got a lift from the likes of Dave Alvin and John Doe, but still his career never reached the Buck Owens/Merle Haggard level of divine countrystardom, mostly because his career was seasonally star-crossed. Though Yoakam has sold over 25 million records in his career, country isn’t what it was. Similar shrugs can be given to his acting career. Support roles like Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade (and most recently–honestly?–the FX show Wilfred) has at best nominated him for an Actor’s Guild Award, but it never has moved beyond that. And yet, it seems in 3 Pears that he’s okay about it.
And so this resignation to not just the hurt that comes in trying, but also to the inevitability of continuing to try, is a refreshing glimpse of what’s also happening musically in 3 Pears. Yoakam certainly isn’t just a country musician and never has been; but here, with Beck as co-producer, there’s a lot of genre boundary-blasting going on. And it doesn’t feel forced; you don’t get the feeling that 1960s shooby-doobies are outside of Dwight’s wheelhouse but, instead, that he finally feels carefree enough to let it air out. And then there’s the “Nothing But Love” opening and clashing drumthuds and stinging guitar in which I swear to you that you kind of expect to hear the first ever country music Hamilton Leithauser cameo. And yet he doesn’t, and it’s Dwight Yoakam, and it’s perfectly honkytonk.
“Nothing but love is there when the rest is gone.” It seems to be a continued strand throughout the album, the eternity of love, it’s power in need. And this isn’t to say that 3 Pears has no play–“Waterfall” dreams up peanut butter and jellyfish kisses, all in the name of a free affection that would be real if “we just stopped keeping score” (!). But then there’s the need. Goodness is Dwight talking about some suffering in this record. And there’s no better example than the song after the anthemic love song. Called “It’s Never Alright,” the song subverts the kind of “It’s Going to Be Alright” song that people often use to explain away suffering. Dwight is clear on the objective reality of suffering, that the sunny-side-up brand is deluded, that “even when it’s better” (which is invariably true, a season in suffering usually gets better) there is the reality that better is not the norm. Sounds bleak, you might say–but I don’t think so. I think Dwight is just pointing to something deeper than circumstantial satisfaction:
It’s never alright / It comes and it goes
It’s always around / Even when it don’t show
They say it gets better / Well I guess that it might
But even when it’s better / It’s never alright
It’s never OK / It moves here and there
Then sometimes it stays / In one place and just stares
They say that the darkest / Is just before light
Each day may get brighter / But it’s never alright
Until then we, with Dwight, wait for new hope. Something that is “Nothing But Love” to come and be with us there. What happens then? Well, for Yoakam, it certainly seems out of our hands. “Rock It All Away” is a tribute to what happens, and the disbelief, the loneliness that is completely offended by the intrusion of love into “every empty space.” Some might say it’s a move away from his Bakersfield Sound, a last gasp pop move to keep his fame-dream alive, for now. Instead, this record seems to be made in creative freedom: it is seems to be the product of that love intrusion that has “rocked away” Yoakam’s attendant personage, and made 3 Pears an inventive and refreshingly unbound record.