In the liner notes for his new album, Steve Martin recounts a conversation with his agent in which, “as a warning, he said, ‘Remember, Steve, you’re selling something no one wants.’ He meant CDs, but I also heard it as ‘music from a 70-year-old comedian.’” Well, sure, if they want to put it that way. Beyond little things like the death of physical media, ageism, and aversion to actors crossing over to other disciplines, there’s also the nearly global disinterest in acoustic string bands. Martin is too much the bluegrass booster, of course, to cite as an additional reason why “The Long-Awaited Album” might not move in the quantities “Jerk” videotapes once did.
But with this new record, actually, just as he has for the last decade, Martin is giving fans exactly what they want — at least that admittedly smaller subset of fans who value both his absurdity and his seriousness of intent. He seems to feel that the time for doing it all in movies like “Roxanne” has passed, but now he’s able to independently pull it off in his music, where lowbrow joke songs are juxtaposed with tender ones, and where the chops are serious even in the ones where the words aren’t. These primarily musical last 10 years of his have been on par with his first decade as a star, and if the mixture of comedy riffing and clawhammer banjo he’s doing out on the road have distracted him from fielding any “Grandfather of the Bride” offers, all the better for everyone (except maybe that agent).
The very title of “The Long-Awaited Album” tells you that Martin has gotten a lot more comfortable with making comedy a crucial part of his bluegrass persona than he was when he released the less wackily titled “The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo” to kick off this part of his career in 2009. It’s a veritable variety show of an album, with three overtly laughable numbers that Martin sings, six less comedic tunes in which he defers to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Woody Platt for more melodious lead vocals, and five quickie instrumentals. It’s a good mix that lets you know Martin realizes no one wants to hear him sing novelty tunes for an entire album, and that he also realizes no one wants to hear him sing no novelty tunes for an entire album.
Of the Martin-sung stuff, “Nights in the Lab” is a particularly winning tale of romance blooming among biological scientists; there’s a lot of silliness as Martin thinks of things to rhyme with “bacterium,” but also the legit tenderness of: “You hang your coat and take a break/While you’re gone I celebrate/The photo on your laminate.” The single “Caroline,” which arrived in advance with a video starring Bill Hader and Cecily Strong, is a staccato-sung breakup rave-up with some ridiculous details (rhyming “Olive Garden” and “glove compartment”) and some not so (stalking exes on Facebook being a sad daily fact of life). The only misfire is “Strangest Christmas Ever,” which isn’t nearly strange enough, reading like Martin’s attempt to come up with a dystopian holiday scenario as ultimately harmless as “National Lampoon’s Family Vacation” or Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family.”
You’re happy for the comedy, but probably even happier when Platt is singing some pretty songs with a bit more repeat value. There’s a parallel to “Roxanne” here, actually; if Martin is the Cyrano de Bergerac writing all this material, the Steep Canyon Rangers’ singer is the guy who gets to woo us by giving voice to Martin’s lovelier or more soberly intended tunes.
“Santa Fe,” an affectionately hectic account of love-at-first-sight travelers arranging a first date in New Mexico. That one’s relatively straightforward, if a bluegrass song that blasphemously brings in mariachi horns can be considered straightforward. A crush and a first date end less well in the ruminative “Bad Night.” Martin has also written a couple of more deeply felt songs — “All Night Long,” a long-distance lament inspired by Skype-ing with his wife, Anne, and “On the Water,” a tune about getting oceanic which is of a type that, he admits in the liner notes “is rare in bluegrass, as there’s not much sailing in Kentucky.”
But seriously: Lines like “We will hold our faces titled toward the sky/Arms in warm embraces celebrate this night…/On the water we are not the same/Time away with friends is time reclaimed” are sweet enough to make you wonder if all comic souls are innately tortured after all. That’s a rare sentimental aside for Martin, but he has plenty of other deftly serious lyrical moments, like in the story-song “Girl from River Run”: “Then it came to graduation day/She went off to LSU/Everybody stood and waved goodbye/But I had been accepted too.” The richness in those spare lyrics suggests that the time Martin has spent honing his humor down to 140 characters on Twitter in recent years has been an exercise in economy well spent.
The instrumentals, most clocking in at around two minutes are under, are just a little too short, unfortunately. Yes, it may be a minority of America demanding “More clawhammer.” but we can’t all be so discerning. Maybe even non-bluegrass fans will appreciate the picturesque portrait Martin paints in the liner notes of what to imagine during these lyric-less asides. For “Office Supplies,” he writes, “When you listen to this tune, doesn’t it make you think of office supplies?” I don’t think Earl Scruggs done it that way, but that’s okay.