After the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a national phenomenon five years ago, Elvis Costello joked that the album’s producer, T Bone Burnett, could probably be elected president of the United States if he wanted to.
On The True False Identity, Burnett’s first solo album in 14 years, the roots-rock icon sounds like he’d be more than willing to take the reins of leadership from Dubya. Burnett, like his singer-songwriter wife Sam Phillips, has always been a maverick Christian, a progressive figure with little regard for the evangelical right. Much like Christ himself, Burnett directs his wrath at the money changers, the greed merchants who poison our culture and our enviroment.
Burnett has said that all rules of form and genre disappeared for him about a decade ago, and, sure enough, The True False Identity tramples over several musical categories at once. Taking his cues from both Daniel Lanois and Tom Waits (whose guitarist Mark Ribot plays a central role here), Burnett creates a sparse, jagged sonic playground with surprises lurking around every corner: Overdriven guitar riffs collide with clanking percussion, standup bass, and discrete splashes of organ.
The true false identity
T Bone Burnett
In small doses, it can be very effective. The country-flavored “I’m Going on a Long Journey Never to Return” is Burnett at his apocalyptic best, and “Baby Don’t You Say You Love Me” builds up an undeniable momentum. Over the course of a full album, however, Burnett’s doomsday kvetching turns a bit tiresome. This is particularly true on tracks such as “Palestine, Texas and “Hollywood Mecca of the Movies,” in which he talks his way through verses like an alt-country rapper.
When his critiques hit their marks, however, they leave no one standing: “Is this faith that you profess/that led to this colossal mess?” Burnett might not have designs on the White House, but he’s certainly paying close attention to its present occupant.
- Gilbert Garcia