Following his 2012 Kin collaboration with poet and memoirist Mary Karr and last year’s Old Yellow Moon with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell offers his first proper solo release since 2008′s Sex & Gasoline, and the breather clearly did him some good. Tarpaper Sky, with its emotionally direct songwriting and singing and intimate, ruminative sound, is arguably his best since the 2003 Fate’s Right Hand.
Working with guitarist/co-producer Steuart Smith and other veterans of his 1988 landmark Diamonds and Dirt, Crowell comes up with a spare, reflective set that continues to resonate well after it has finished playing. It opens with the folk-rocking “The Long Journey Home,” a rambling man’s reflection of a life spent sowing wild oats, and ends with the summing-up of “Oh, What a Beautiful World,” a haunting ballad that alternates between melancholy and adulatory. In between, Crowell guides us through rich material: There’s the lush, Cajun melody of “Fever on the Bayou” and the harrowing pain behind “God, I’m Missing You” (a writing collaboration with Karr that Lucinda Williams sang on Kin ). There’s the laughing-to-keep-from-crying opening line of the hard-rocking “Frankie Please”: “You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.” There’s Crowell’s Dylanesque imagery in the title phrase, or the “neon heart attack” and “cornsilk vapours” of “Somebody’s Shadow.” “The Flyboy & the Kid” even conjures up Dylan’s “Forever Young,” though it’s Crowell’s homage to Guy Clark, his fellow Texas-to-Tennessee songwriter. As with Clark, Crowell’s mastery is so complete that it would feel casual, if it weren’t so devastating.