So some famous actor decides to make a country-folk album and enlists some a-list talent to help it come across. What has that got to do with the price of rice, right? Damn movie stars, always trying to hyphenate us poor folk into thinking they're geniuses. And in this case, into thinking he's a man of the people and a deep thinker to boot. Apparently acting, cartooning, photography, narration, voice-overs, and humanitarian concerns aren't enough -- Jeff Bridges has to rub our faces in it by jamming with Neko Case, then making an album with T-Bone Burnett, Sam Phillips, Marc Ribot, and Rosanne Cash. Hell, anyone could sound good with that backup. Who does this guy think he is, anyway?
Well, he's Jeff Bridges. The man several of our best film critics have called the most natural actor working, or even of all time. He's like the anti-Tom Cruise: you never notice him acting, you just hang out and watch some fascinating character you just met slowly winding his way through life. Which is what he does on this eponymous major-label debut. (Actually his second effort, after a few soundtrack items and an abortive attempt at a side project done with Michael McDonald eleven years ago, when the world and Jeff and you and I were all in a much different place.) T-Bone gives Jeff aural backdrops as stark and beautiful and natural as a John Ford western and as darkly strange and full of portent as the Coen Bros., and Bridges holds you in the spotlight by, as always, disappearing into himself. Only this time its his real self. And you get to come with.
A practicing Buddhist since before most of today's big stars were going to calls, Jeff's themes are existential in nature, pondering the beauty/tragedy of existence and the wobbly nature of our perception. That he does this largely with other people's songs is even more stunning -- his taste is excellent, as he sticks to thoughtful uberfringe folkies like John Goodwin, Greg Brown, and the late Stephen Bruton, but like any good country singer, he finds the humanity in their tales and translates it for us average Joes. That goes equally for the gorgeous, twisted fantasia of "Blue Car," the deceptively understated epic "Slow Boat," and the meta-hangover of his own deliciously jazzy "Tumbling Vine." ("Here is the freedom / I have been sent: / I'm alive and I'm Buddhistly bent / wonderful moments / the past is a dream / the future is hiding / ice and steam.")
Actually, "deceptively understated" is an apt descriptor for this entire album, not to mention Bridges' whole career. Fans of the Dude, his now-legendary everyman from The Big Lebowski, may be disappointed at the lack of slapstick in these cosmic punchlines, but like that masterpiece, it's still dark, worn around the edges, refreshingly human, and, sometimes, more touching than it has any right being. New shit really has come to light. (I kept myself to one Lebowski joke.)
Graded using the Third Eye Method:
Impact: 81. Hushed and profound. Imagine Mazzy Star making a John Hiatt album.
Invention: 74. How someone who grew up in the Platinum Triangle of L.A. developed an authentic Texas twang, I have no idea.
Integrity: 92. Jeff's total lack of affectation and everyman version of existentialism really tie the album together. (sorry.)