[Editor’s Note: When Guy Clark passed away back in May (wow, has it been nearly two months already?), I just knew I had to review one of his albums before long. While I don’t have it in me at the moment to tackle his masterpiece, 1975’s Old No. 1, I decided to cover another album in his illustrious catalog: 2009’s Somedays the Song Writes You. While I no longer regard this album as being among his very best, it has some special meaning to me because it was the first Guy Clark album I ever heard back around 2009. I decided to take a trip down memory lane and revisit it.]
While the lion’s share of Guy Clark’s best work came in the twentieth century, he continued to record fine albums into the 2000s. 2009’s Somedays The Song Writes You is such an example: a laid-back set of well-crafted tunes that prove Clark was still capable of writing a great song despite getting up there in age. It’s not entirely without flaws, but there’s a lot to like here, and this is exactly the kind of album you should try out if you crave smart songwriting and meaningful narratives in your music.
Like most Clark albums, this album has a folk-leaning production that is acoustic and sparse. Produced by Clark himself, it’s mostly his voice, guitar and lyrics, backed by little more than some mandolin and percussion on most tracks. Of course, sometimes less is more, and this is exactly the kind of production these songs demand. Clark’s lyrics are the star of the show here, and drowning them in layers of production would have been counterproductive. The album’s overall sound could be described as mellow and relaxed. This means that this is not the album to play on Saturday night when you want an adrenaline rush, but is perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The album begins with a trio of songs that earn high marks. The opener, “Somedays the Song Writes You” is a keen observation of the ups and downs that can be experienced both in everyday life and in the act of writing songs. “The Guitar” is one of those songs that you’re guaranteed to remember for the rest of your life simply because of its uniqueness. It’s one of the those pure story songs that used to be a staple of country music but are now hard to find. It involves a wayward musician stumbling into a pawn shop and being urged by the mysterious proprietor to buy a guitar that may or may not have magical properties. I won’t spoil where it goes, but it’s a terrific story song that plays out like a great short story by an author like Stephen King.
The third track of the album is by far my favorite. “Hemingway’s Whiskey”, an ode to the legendary novelist’s predilection for alcohol, has an extremely clever hook that I’ll present here without comment:
“Hemingway’s whiskey, warm and smooth and mean
Even when it burns, it will always finish clean
He did not like it watered down, he took it straight up and neat
If it’s bad enough for him, you know it’s bad enough for me.”
Another highlight is “Eamon”, which chronicles a sailor/explorer’s life and death. It was co-written by Clark’s one-time protegee and longtime friend Rodney Crowell. In the pantheon of Clark-Crowell co-writes, it probably doesn’t match “She’s Crazy For Leaving” or “Stuff That Works”, but it comes mighty close. There are also two tracks written with Ashely Monroe: “One Way Ticket Down” and “The Coat”, the latter a slice-of-life song that describes a situation most of us can relate do: doing something bold or risky out of defiance (or maybe just for the heck of it), only to instantly regret it. “Hollywood” examines Tinseltown’s potential to deliver fame and wealth, but also its capacity to bring about disappointment and heartbreak.
A cover of best friend’s Townes Van Zandt’s classic “If I Needed You” is very pleasant, if not extremely memorable. “Wrong Side of the Tracks” is a good lyric about the people and events that characterize the seedy part of town , but I found the melody of the chorus to be slightly plodding and uninteresting.
Things improve significantly with the album’s closer, the wonderful “Maybe I Can Paint Over That”, in which the narrator acknowledges his mistakes and shortcomings, all the while recognizing that he’ll never be able to keep them from someone who knows him well. With deceptively simple lyrics that make an insightful observation of the human condition, it’s vintage Clark.
In truth, there are several tracks that are strong enough to compare to Clark’s best work, but also roughly an equal number that are merely “good”. However, my biggest criticism is the album could use a bit more variety in tempo. There’s no track that really could be described as upbeat, so when you get to the fourth or fifth subdued ballad in a row, things might drag a little. This makes this album somewhat less accessible than some of Clark’s other efforts. This is one of those albums you really have to be in the mood for, but I suppose that’s not inherently a bad thing.
That being said, this is a really good album that positively adds to Clark’s legacy. Even the weakest tracks are solid and reveal a master tunesmith at work. It’s more of a mid-tier album in his discography, but an average Clark album is still well worth your time.
Grade: 3 out of 4 flags