CD Review of The True False Identity by T Bone Burnett

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The True False Identity
starstarstarno starno star Label: Columbia/DMZ
Released: 2006
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You may never have heard of him, but T Bone Burnett has had one hell of a career. As a recording artist, he’s strictly cult stuff – the kind of performer whose name elicits either blank stares or rabid mouth-frothing, with almost nothing in between – but as a producer, he boasts the kind of cachet and platinum résumé that can make or break a project.

It’s this kind of status that allows an artist to take his time making an album – in The True False Identity’s case, fourteen years – and also affords the luxury of largely foregoing commercial concerns. After all, when the label releasing your new record is your own Columbia-distributed imprint, and said imprint sold approximately fourteen billion copies of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack you produced a few years ago, you can afford to take at least one eye off the bottom line.

Which is a good thing, because Burnett – aside from being perhaps the unlikeliest-looking “T Bone” anywhere on the planet – is a cult artist for a reason. Several reasons, actually: His reedy vocals are an acquired taste, his choice of subject matter can be a tad idiosyncratic, and his songs have a tendency to try and skate by on smarts and/or vibe rather than a genuinely compelling overall package.

Age has seasoned his vocals nicely, but reasons two and three remain major elements of Burnett’s eighth album, which is why it’s already provoked an avalanche of rapturous praise from members of the cult (many of whom are, naturally, music critics), but is unlikely to do much in terms of expanding the ranks.

This is all well and good – Identity isn’t a bad album, not at all, and even if it doesn’t sell a single copy, Burnett ain’t going broke – but for those who have eyed with skepticism the heap of palm fronds at his feet, it raises the question: What’s the big deal?

It’s solidly produced, of course, which actually helps to underline the album’s main flaw. Like most Burnett productions, it boasts a warm, cohesive sound – one ideally employed in service of equally cohesive songs. And there’s the rub: though each of Identity’s 12 tracks enjoys a sprinkling of genius, they also have a tendency to run out of gas distractingly early. Take, for example, “Every Time I Feel the Shift,” which opens with this brilliant first verse:

If we were to pass an eleventh commandment
In twenty years, people would be shocked to learn
That there had once been only ten
And wouldn’t care if there had been

It’s all the more disappointing, then, that the song proceeds to wander off into a series of non sequiturs before finally dissolving into a seemingly endless chant of “We’re marching off to Zion, the beautiful city of God.” And so it goes throughout the album. Burnett has some genuinely trenchant commentary to offer – be it on love, the human condition, or life in 21st-century America – but his ideas are either left undeveloped or ground into dust.

Still, though, in terms of albums released by recording artists-turned producers-turned recording artists, The True False Identity beats, say, Jeff Lynne’s Armchair Theatre hands down. Besides, you’ve got to give credit to anybody who thinks to rhyme “nature” with “nomenclature.”

~Jeff Giles