is an American original. A songwriter and performer steeped in our nation's deep musical heritage, T Bone has emerged from a self-imposed 14 year hiatus as a recording artist to release two highly-anticipated collections of music simultaneously: The True False Identity
, his first album of new original songs since 1992, and 20/20: The Essential T Bone Burnett
, a 40-song retrospective spanning Burnett's entire career of music-making. T Bone says of his extended break, "After the last record (1992's The Criminal Under My Own Hat
), I felt I could write some new songs and go around the track again, but I didn't feel that I would get anywhere. The road had become too difficult. Music had come completely apart for me. But more importantly, I didn't have anything I wanted to say. It all seemed pointless, so I decided to explore some of the other ideas that were coming my way. I needed freedom. I needed time to find another way into playing music again."
Closing one door clearly opened numerous others, as T Bone's time away from recording and performing paved the way for one of music's most multi-faceted and successful careers. His multitude of musical identities include: Grammy-winning producer, (the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?
" soundtrack, the Tony Bennett
and k.d. lang album
, A Wonderful World
); Oscar-nominated songwriter ("The Scarlet Tide" from Cold Mountain
); indie record label founder (DMZ Records); soundtrack composer/Executive Music Producer (Walk The Line
, The Big Lebowski
) and versatile studio wizard (Elvis Costello
, Roy Orbison
, Tony Bennett, k.d. lang, Alison Krauss
, Counting Crows
, the Wallflowers
, Sam Phillips
, Gillian Welch
, and Ralph Stanley
It is no coincidence that T Bone is releasing both a retrospective and a new album on the same day. In his revelatory liner notes for 20/20, he has written, "This is the way I wanted to close the book on these songs from a dead man, and open the book on the new life I am beginning after forty years of wandering in the desert."
An enigmatic sentiment coming from a man whose solo work has always been filled with droll humor, sardonic wordplay and keen cultural observations. But, for T Bone Burnett, the past is prologue and The True False Identity is the fulfillment of an artistic vision that's been forming in the back of his brain for decades.
Pop music is traditionally a young person's medium, but with The True False Identity, T Bone Burnett has carved out a space in that pantheon of artists making their most vital and compelling works in the light of wisdom, experience, and seasoned perfection of craft.
"When I was young, I used to write all the time. My father asked me if I was going to be a writer, and I said I thought I probably was, and he said, 'Don't publish anything until you're fifty, because before then, you won't know what you're talking about.' I was never able to forget those words - even if I didn't know what he was talking about at the time - so there was always a part of me that was standing back from what I was doing. But I have to admit, he was right. Somewhere along the way I heard that everything we remember Sophocles for, he wrote between the ages of 50 and 70. That was an inspiring thought, to say the least. I couldn't have written these songs or made this record until now, without having seen the things I've seen and without having gone through the things I've gone through."
As T Bone explains, the aim of The True False Identity is to "erase the nonexistent line between comedy and tragedy. In the theater, you hear laughter and gasps at the same moment. Some people are amused by the same thing other people are appalled by." As Burnett observes, "The tragedy and the comedy is that reality has been devoured by Image Management. Today, you can say anything you want and you can do anything you want. Then, you can say you didn't say it or didn't do it and no one will remember or know the difference or believe anything other than what he or she wants to believe."
In his own perspective on social and political realities, T Bone cites the fact that "I hear it often said that fifty percent of the people are out of the mainstream. That is an absurd joke that people say with dead seriousness. And I hear each fifty percent use the exact same words to describe the other. We live in an age of language pollution. Words like 'values' and 'freedom' have been used with great cynicism and stripped of their meaning."
The musical genesis of The True False Identity has its roots in the records T Bone and his musicians immersed themselves in while recording. Burnett acted as DJ for those sessions, spinning records and videos between takes. "We were listening to Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, The Carter Family, and a lot of Haitian music," he says, "so the axis this music turns on is some kind of line drawn from New Orleans through Mississippi and Tennessee to Haiti."
A song like "Zombieland" ("Machines always do just what you tell them to do/As long as you do what they say/Machines gonna stomp/To that devil beat in Zombieland") with music throbbing slow and mad like some delirious new language is more than a mere critique of media-generated hypnosis. It's a peek through the gauze into the eye of reality. "It's not just the media," T Bone explains. "Modern religion has turned people's minds into thousands of conflicting ideas, it's politics, the implicit memory of our culture, conflicting pieces of information that are never resolved."
In "Palestine, Texas," T Bone constructs a nimble litany of internal rhymes based around the Rat Pack characters, rising and cascading into a waterfall of punch lines, the narrative through-lines driven home by the pounding sway of the song's central guitar-bass-drums riff.
According to T Bone, the songs that make up The True False Identity were conceived during a period of isolation. As he explains, "I went away for a month, the summer before last, to a tent in the woods and sat there every day and wrote about 200 pages of couplets and verses, all in longhand." Upon his return to Los Angeles, T Bone honed those pages into songs, then started planning the sessions and casting the musicians from a long list of amazing players he had worked with over the years. When this band entered the studio several months later, they were able to work through the arrangements rather quickly and the entire recording process took less than a month. Editing and mixing the dozens of hours of tape took nearly a year, however.
"I have been working on this sound for a long time. "We had done a great deal of experimentation in the studio and getting the sound was not something that could be gotten to quickly," T Bone explains. Indeed, the unique percussive and rhythmic textures of The True False Identity are anchored by the use of three drummers on most of the album's tracks, and T Bone's production approach also utilized guitars, bass and keyboards as percussion instruments. "All instruments are drums really. Some have strings attached, some you blow into, but they are all resonating chambers that you attack in some way. I wanted to put listeners in the middle of this new sound, to experience it almost in 3D. I told the band to imagine we were playing in an auditorium, and to imagine that auditorium as a giant maraca, and that we wanted to shake the audience as if they were beads inside the maraca."
A work of profound poetry and music, The True False Identity provides tuneful riff-driven inquiries into the nature of consciousness in songs like "Every Time I Feel The Shift" ("When you're out for revenge dig two graves/When you run from the truth it comes in waves"); the inevitability of a fading relationship in tracks like "I'm Going On A Long Journey Never To Return" ("Oh this death/Moment by moment/Darker and darker/Down and down/I feel your cold breath"); the power of love against the insidiousness of hatred in songs like "Seven Times Hotter Than Fire" ("If I was dead and buried in the cold hard ground/I would rise from the grave and come and track you down"); and the paradox of love itself in "Baby Don't Say You Love Me," with its deceptively jaunty melody underpinning a narrative that reads like Lao-Tze's "Art of War" as applied to 21st century romance.
For those familiar with T Bone's impressive repertoire, or who are coming to his distinctive and highly-acclaimed work for the first time through the 20/20 retrospective, one of the most striking things about The True False Identity is how it sounds unlike any of Burnett's other records. T Bone credits his musical exploration of the last 15 years as a key reason for the artistic leap between his previous work as a recording artist and the bold new songs and sound of The True False Identity. "One day when we were in New York, just beginning work on a play, I said to Sam Shepard, 'I've completely lost the handle. I don't why one note should be there instead of another one. I don't even know what music is anymore,' and he said, 'Well, when you do it, that's what it is.' Working in the theater and in films gives you lyrical and sonic freedom you don't have in the traditional record business where I had spent most of my working life. I was determined not to bring any of those old limits and preconceived notions of what a record should be back into the studio with me."
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