Ask those who know legendary Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen, and they’ll tell you he doesn’t mince words in real life. So it’s just a creative device when he explains himself in the title track of his newest Koch Records release, What I Really Mean . It’s a postcard travelogue turned love song: “What I really mean,” he sings, “is I wish you were here.”
Robert Earl Keen is definitely present these days — as an artist, writer, and painter of southern aural landscapes — and he’s better than ever. That signature wry, lyrical elegance is in full evidence, as is his notable appreciation for the underbelly of society. On this, his twelfth album, he gives us what is possibly his finest collection of Southern Lit songs. And that’s saying something with critical successes such as 1989’s West Textures, which yielded a first career song, “The Road Goes On Forever,” to 1993’s career-clinching A Bigger Piece of Sky (chock-full of astonishing songs), to 1994’s Gringo Honeymoon, which was essentially rocket Fuel for the fledgling alt-country movement.
And while his last outing, Farm Fresh Onions, won great acclaim for eclectically showcasing some of his more raucous material, What I Really Mean is a welcome return to the acoustic country side of this revered singer/songwriter.
With it, he reminds us of his purist path — the clarity of telling tales in song that both evoke emotion and entertain, usually all at once. Case in point is “The Great Hank,” a dream-story about Hank Williams in drag. It’s not at all disrespectful, but instead showcases Keen’s deft ability to make us chuckle contemplatively.
This English major is indeed a masterful writer, and has a grand flair at juxtaposing lyric with melody as in “The Wild Ones,” where the lyric exudes a bold, youthful life, while the arrangement is wistful. Conversely, in “Broken End of Love,” the lyric is sad and prickly while the melody portends hope. And of course, he planned it that way. “That was my intent, to just let it all out, do the primal scream thing, almost. To say it without being nasty.”
And then there’s that ability of his to write cinematically, as in “A Border Tragedy,” a funny, back-alley film clip that ends with Ray Price singing “Streets of Laredo.” This one will become a classic.
Besides Keen’s delicious writing, part of the joy of this record is the incredible talent he’s drawn to the project, including Danny Barnes, whose blithe banjo rolls melodically throughout, guitarist/producer Rich Brotherton, and mixing engineer Ed Cherney, who made a name with Bob Dylan, the B-52s and Roy Orbison, among others
So what Robert Earl Keen means now, this album might say, is to cement his status for all time as a songwriter and artist of impeccable quality and creativity.