On My New Moon
I can’t quit Amos Lee. The sad part is that I almost want to. I first saw him perform during my senior year of high school while he was on tour with Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, pork pie hat, Gibson beat to hell, Hammond keys, and all. He unleashed a wail at the climactic chorus of “Seen it All Before” that left me hooked.
Three of his first four albums – Amos Lee, Supply and Demand, and Mission Bell – are probably enough to keep his name around for decades. They’re about as good as modern songwriting gets. But his other albums are as disappointing as those three are exceptional. My New Moon is his seventh studio release and does nothing to alter the pattern.
Lee set himself up for a quick slide into a familiar quagmire. He rose to fame on vintage looks, vinyl timbre, old-school songwriting, and simple arranging. But what next? More of the same becomes a gimmick. But if it ain’t broke, fixing is a dangerous game. Lee chose to reinvent himself a bit at a time. His first two efforts – Amos Lee and Supply and Demand – are orthodox americana, while his subsequent Last Days at the Lodge marked a radical departure into dense arrangements, electronic sounds, and a more edgy aesthetic. Mission Bell is a perfect correction – a beautifully rendered middle. But each album to follow diverged further from the sound that made Lee popular.
A common complaint among artists is that critics expect them to produce the same work over and over again but revel in berating them when they do so. Angus Young once responded to a critic who accused AC/DC of putting out eleven albums that sound exactly the same: “In fact, we've put out 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” Amos Lee has as much freedom to do whatever the hell he wants as anyone else.
The first track on My New Moon is extraordinary – everything one would expect from a brilliant songwriter. “No More Darkness, No More Light” is clever and fresh. Melody spills from every corner, every instrument and every voice. Electronic sounds, unusual rhythmic patterns, and studio processing add depth to a song that would be beautiful on ukulele and kazoo. It’s not necessary that it sound like old Amos and is no less extraordinary for being a wild departure from his early albums. There’s no other album of his on which the song would fit better. The problem is that it doesn’t fit on My New Moon either.
The following tracks – “Louisville” and “Little Light” – are pleasant, if a little dull. “Hang On, Hang On” is a beautiful blend of the acoustic guitar and simple songs of his early recordings with the dramatic sounds and more dense arrangements of his recent work. “Whiskey on Ice” serves as some evidence that his songwriting can survive his destructive impulses in the studio. The remaining five tracks are over-processed in a way that leaves behind the sickly feeling that the thick arrangements are covering up what isn’t there.
Maybe someday Amos Lee will leave the studio with an album that is an utter failure – completely boring and unlistenable. Instead he produces records that leave me profoundly disappointed, but includes one or two songs so extraordinarily beautiful and clever that I stop short of cutting bait. I listen to the album a few times, pull the winners out and tack them onto a playlist along with the other diamonds in his vast rough – ”What’s Been Going On," “Walls,” “Johnson Boulevard.” I can’t quit Amos Lee and hope he finds his footing again. Until then, I’ll grit my teeth and admit that the good he gives is so good as to be worth the nonsense. Doesn’t mean I have to be happy about the nonsense.