Merge / City Slang
t some point between the release of Lambchop’s last album, the 2004 double-whammy Aw C’Mon / No You C’Mon, singer and bandleader Kurt Wagner had part of his jaw removed due to the presence of a malicious cyst, with bone grafted from his hip to his face to compensate. Shortly after that, he survived a serious cancer scare. The title of Lambchop’s eighth (or ninth, depending how you count) studio album, deliberately in the past tense as Wagner tries to put the last two years behind him, is a direct reference to his state of mind and body during these traumas.
You might then expect Damaged to be a mournful, elegiac record touched with sadness, resignation, and trepidatious hope. You’d be right. But these tones and resonances are nothing new to Lambchop’s world: 2002’s mysterious, near ambient Is a Woman must surely stand as one of the saddest sounding albums ever recorded.
The sudden glimpses of mortality that Wagner has endured over the last two years have not altered Lambchop’s essential aesthetic, it\'s merely focused it. In the past Wagner has been a voyeur, his songs growing, waning, swooning, and curling around lyrics drawn heavily from observations of the movement of life outside his front porch; on Damaged his experiences and feelings are at the center.
You’d be hard-pressed to notice from the off though, because (as ever) Lambchop’s development from one record to the next is a movement rather than a revolution. As such Wagner’s lyrics may be more directly personal, but they\'re still delivered in that familiar, half-whispered, half-sung brogue, his pain couched in and reflected by the same kind of quaint observations that he\'s always traded in, amplifying emotion by positing it in tiny, condensed compartments. There are hints of physical and mental pain and worry, but also of emotional trauma, suggesting a personal life just as beset by trouble and sadness as Wagner’s physical self.
Aw C’Mon / No You C’Mon left some fearing for the future of Kurt’s cracked, aged, and delicate voice, the heady, slightly strained falsetto of Nixon seeming to have taken a toll on his range and sustain. On a handful of tracks here, most notably “The Rise and Fall of the Letter P,” Kurt’s voice is so closely mic’d and tremblingly hushed that every moist and swollen nuance of his faltering pronunciation is revealed, almost as if his vocals were recorded as he lay on the operating table, singing through numbness and immanent fear.
Once again the band shift gently in sound for this album, their course in this decade evolving from lushly orchestrated Philly-soul on Nixon, to the ambient piano ruminations of Is a Woman, the cinematic strings and prominent guitars of C’Mon, to a kind of forlorn, string-laden chamber pop with subdued flourishes of jazz and country, meaning that Lambchop in 2006 sound like nothing so much as themselves.
Possibly the most profound development here is that Damaged is bound by a series of interludes, like the altered codas from Loveless and its accompanying EPs, wherein instrumental versions of tunes are spun backwards through themselves and each other, deconstructed and rebuilt by collaborators Scott Martin and Ryan Norris of Hands Off Cuba, alchemically blending the traditional, almost classical palettes of Lambchop’s own instrumentation with something more modern. On occasion Martin and Norris also play these reconstructions during the songs themselves, adding further detail and texture to Lambchop’s already heady sonic soup.
You could spend an age listing and describing the musical wealth of Damaged; the repetitious guitar chimes on “Paperback Bible” and free-rolling pianos on “Prepared ,” the delicately awesome whirlwind of guitar riven through “Short” like a distant, lamenting foghorn calling the presence of submarine rocks to sleeping sailors, the strange dramatic clashes of the final, anachronistic title track (anachronistic because it bears the title of their recent compilation of formative material, rather than this album), the occasional, miraculously uplifting emergence of low-key brass, the near ever-present lachrymose tide of strings and the beguiling waft of between song transitions… Better just to listen to it, soak it all in, than fail with words.