Marty Stuart's new album is technically immaculate, showcasing both an expansive formalism and a decorative beauty. The album argues about what the West was, what the West can be, and reminds listener that it used to be country & western — that the genre included California, Texas and Colorado as much as it included 16th Avenue in Nashville.
This, his 18th album, is more about the idea of the West than specific geography; he is arguing in favour of a historically minded, geographically widened history, more cosmic and less specific than others who are doing similar work. This is not Lyle Lovett reminding us about Texas.
The outlaw song is one of the archetypes in the album. There's an outlaw song, a trucker song, a lost love song. Stuart is an excellent storyteller, but he tends towards the universal, so the specific details are less important than the overarching narrative. The truck song ("Whole Lotta Highway (And a Million Miles to Go)" name-checks Barstow, but with a kind of liturgical awareness of the genre and with very little grime; the heartbreak song ("Please Don't Say Good Boy") has a profound loneliness, the feelings more present because Stuart is excellent at writing and performing about feeling, and also because overwhelming emotion is formal required by the song. Stuart's encyclopaedic sense of place knows that one can feel and analyse the history of feeling, and that neither distract from the other.
Stuart, by being a master with decades of experience, brings the history of the form into individual songs, and often into whole albums, forming a signature sound that is marked by a radical generosity. He gives his band their fair due, and rightly so: It's one of the best bands in country (including new bassist Chris Scruggs, a third generation multi-instrumentalist, whose grandfather was of those Scruggs). To the listener, Stuart talks when he needs to talk here, sings when it is better to sing and, on occasion, is excellent at simultaneously talking and singing. The album begins with pow wow drums, and one of the songs is entirely in Spanish.
It feels churlish to expect a bit more emotion here — to have the song that flirts with rockabilly commit more fully, to have a tiny bit of specific detail in some of the narrative choices he makes, to make his desire for Barstow slightly more grimy. But, if he did any of those things, he wouldn't be Marty Stuart.
I still kind of wonder, though, if he could have gone further, if the way out that is promised by the album under-delivers a little, tamer than the implied wildness of a way out west. Yet, Way Out West still delivers. (Superlatone)