The Chicago Sessions
New West Records
The story goes that Rodney Crowell and Jeff Tweedy had their meet-cute over lunch at some port of call on a Cayamo music cruise a few years back. Crowell made it a point to tell the Wilco captain that he admired his work — in particular a song on one of his recent solo albums — and Tweedy in turn invited the acclaimed Texas songwriter out to his band’s studio in Chicago if he ever wanted to knock some tunes around or try working together. Crowell thanked him but, chalking the whole exchange up as nothing more than two not-especially-well-acquainted, far-from-home artists sharing standard-issue niceties and casual shop talk, never bothered to follow through on the offer.
That is, at least not until one of his adult daughters later heard about the exchange and essentially read him the riot act — presumably beginning with the word “Dude!” Soon enough, calls were made, schedules were sorted, Nashville-to-Chicago tickets were booked and — voila! — an American(a) dream was born.
Yes, that was indeed a ham-fisted mashup of a song title from Crowell’s 1978 debut, Ain’t Living Long Like This, and one of Tweedy’s own landmarks, Wilco’s 2004 album A Ghost is Born. But seeing as how Crowell himself has gone on record likening the “very simple, very innocent,” live-in-the-studio vibe of his latest album to that of his oldest one — so much so, in fact, that the two records even share strikingly similar cover art — well, why not just play along and share in some of that fun?
There’s plenty of fun to go around here, too — or at least a whole lot more than Crowell was working with on his last album. Although still arguably one of the prolific troubadour’s best outings since 2001’s The Houston Kid, 2021’s Triage lived up to the life-or-death urgency of its title in spades, its songs tempered by trauma, mortality and heaps of full-blown, pandemic-fueled existential crisis.
By contrast, The Chicago Sessions — produced by Tweedy at Wilco’s Windy City studio and rehearsal space the Loft — feels all together lighter and if not entirely carefree, then certainly charged with a palpable sense of relief, like a long exhale upon hearing that the test results came back negative or the governor called with a stay of execution.
The opening “Lucky,” an unabashedly loose-limbed shamble of a studio jam propelled by Catherine Marx’s spirited honky-tonk piano, tumbles in like a man dropping his burdens at the door, stripping down to his socks and boxers, and spinning his wife around the room like a punch-drunk, giddy loon, and several songs later, “Oh Miss Claudia” finds him still buzzing with bewildered gratitude: “Whoah, Miss Claudia, you done turned me on a light!” Even the bittersweet “You’re Supposed to Be Feeling Good,” a Crowell song first recorded by his friend Emmylou Harris 46 years ago, feels positively buoyant, like a long-lost nugget of 1970s AM radio gold — or, giving Tweedy his own due as producer, a track that might have fit nicely on Wilco’s Steely-Dan-vibey Sky Blue Sky. And the outright glorious “Everything at Once,” the album’s lone Crowell/Tweedy co-write (and a Crowell/Tweedy duet, to boot), is simply Crowell’s most exhilarating single this side of 2003’s “Earthbound.”
Mind, none of this is to say that The Chicago Sessions is all froth and no fret. “Somebody Loves You,” sequenced hot on the happy heels of “Lucky” and not dissimilar in sonic kick, juxtaposes its disarmingly playful bounce with grim, ripped-from-the-headlines verses (“there’s lead in the water, knees on your neck”) and lands its arch, thoughts-and-prayers-y chorus like a walloping sucker punch to the gut. The devastating “Loving You is the Only Way to Fly” and “Making Lovers Out of Friends” each examine lost or unrequited love with an exquisite depth of feeling reminiscent of Crowell classics like “After All This Time” and “‘Till I Gain Control Again,” and he handles the one cover here — Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall” — with a masterful touch that makes it feel both lived in and fragile as spun glass.
But by the time he comes to the denouement of “Ready to Move On,” the Crowell that sings of feeling tired to the bone and ready to check out doesn’t sound like a man beaten down by life to the point of complete surrender so much as one ready to just exhale, hit reset and hopefully begin anew — lighter.
Cover photo courtesy the artist (rodneycrowell.com)