Reinvention is a decidedly tricky experience. Musically speaking, whenever an artist explores new aural territory they risk undermining expectations, which the Internet has confirmed to be a treacherous undertaking. If an artist is already known for consistent reinvention, lack of innovation may result in the same upheaval. Finding the balance of growth and inventive exploration has no tried and true equation, the danger is persistent. To add to the complexity, a listener must ask themselves; should this be listened to in the context of other releases? Or should this be appreciated entirely on its own? In all art forms, Context is King but at what point does the past inhibit the future; both from a creation standpoint and an appreciation outlook? Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop has, in one form or another, been attempting to answer those questions for the past twenty-five years.
For some time, Wagner’s reinvention was a slow roll. Listening to 1997’s Thriller to 2000’s Nixon to 2008’s OH (Ohio) to 2012’s Mr M reveals a band exploring fascinating blends of Country, R&B, Soul, Pop/Rock and even a dash of metered Ambient compositions. There’s no hard line in the sand where one influence bleeds through more distinctively than another; they simply ebb and flow between tracks and albums. That’s not a knock, it’s an impressive concoction. It’s not until 2016’s FLOTUS that a dramatic shift appears. Some may claim this to be the first reinvention of the band but the entire history of the band had been built on pursuing these curiosities, it was just somewhat more bold with FLOTUS.
With 2019’s This (is what I wanted to tell you), Lambchop builds on that FLOTUS sound with a collection of delicate, beat-driven, vocoder-heavy, crooning ruminations. These songs are immersive and contemplative; asking the listener to sit for a spell and take note not only of the lyrical laments but of the subtle flourishes and changes behind them. And just to keep you guessing, the album ends with the track “Flower”, which is almost entirely devoid of the elements used everywhere else on the record. Lambchop’s one consistent trait is their ability to switch it up, even within the course of a single record.
There’s no article on Lambchop that won’t mention the collaborative nature of the band. This is largely driven by Wagner working with producer and co-writer Matthew McCaughan (Bon Iver, Hiss Golden Messenger), and previous albums have been similar collaborative works with the likes of Ryan Norris, Roger Moutenot, William Tyler and a host of others. The shift in sonics is often attributed to these collaborators but without Wagner’s willingness to take the risk, it’s unlikely we’d ever have heard them.
Summing up the latest offering with no stake in the past is, presumably, how Lambchop would prefer you participate. Doing so would free you of the shackles of expectations but would rob you of the appreciation of variety. Even if this isn’t your favorite iteration of Lambchop, there’s no predicting what the next version will be like. Whatever it may be, we should all be so lucky that it’s as open to unpredictability.