CD Review of The Mystery Tommy Emmanuel

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The Mystery
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For many American listeners, the first mystery is probably “Who is Tommy Emmanuel?” He’s been recording and touring here for over a decade, but Emmanuel’s fame is still primarily centered in his native Australia.

Primarily, but not completely. Discerning guitar nerds all over the world have been singing Emmanuel’s praises for years, and Chet Atkins himself bestowed upon Emmanuel the coveted title of C.G.P. (that’s certified guitar picker to you, mister).

His releases have generally fared poorly on American charts, though, at least partly because of an image problem that started when Emmanuel’s first Stateside label, Epic/550, tried to pass him off as something like a six-stringed Dave Koz with 1993’s not-nearly-as-bad-as-that-just-made-it-sound The Journey. Subsequent releases veered sharply away from that template, and though he’s had the odd quiet-storm hit here and there, Tommy Emmanuel has always been packaged as more of a soft jazz artist than a virtuoso.

Which isn’t to say that “soft jazz” doesn’t apply to Emmanuel’s stuff. The Mystery follows the same loose format as the rest of his recent output: Acoustic, mostly solo, divided relatively evenly between songs meant to make you say “Ah, that’s nice” and songs meant to make you say “Wow.” There’s also, unfortunately, room for more of Emmanuel’s vocals, which – though certainly not bad – are far enough beneath his instrumental talent to be a distraction.

This album’s big vocal number, “Walls,” is a boilerplate paean to Faith, Hope & Love that’s as optimistic as it is unfortunate (“Some walls are made of stone / Sometimes we build our own / Some walls stand for years / Some wash away with tears”); its combination of gooey sentimentality and open-mic singing is almost enough to send the entire album over a heart-shaped cliff, but thankfully, Emmanuel is savvy enough to avoid further missteps.

If there’s any disappointment to be had here, it’s that The Mystery is every bit as tasteful and quietly appealing as anything else Emmanuel has done in recent memory, and therefore doesn’t advance his artistry at all. Admittedly, he’s got a good thing going here, but any groove can turn into a rut if you sit in it long enough.

~Jeff Giles