While Too Long In The Wasteland was James McMurtry’s debut, the first time I heard him was when the great WTTS (92.3 FM, back in the days they were still broadcasting out of Bloomington, IN) was playing “Where’s Johnny,” the first single from his 1992 CD Candyland. I don’t recall being immediately hooked, though I do remember thinking ‘well, that’s an interesting song’ and then moving on to something else.
Tastes change and people change. That was seventeen years ago, and now I find Candyland in my CD player at work on a regular basis. Maybe it’s that I live in Austin now, where McMurtry plays every Wednesday at the Continental Club if he’s in town. Maybe I’m just getting older and wiser. No matter what the reason, Candyland is worth a listen or ten.
With McMurtry, it’s all about the songs, delivered precisely and perfectly in his Droopy Dog crossed with Denis Leary combination of anger and world-weariness. When he sings “That circus music has got to be hell on the ice cream man” in the title track, I can feel the pain and weariness inherent in his powerful view of suburbia as a sort of purgatory for the blind and the bland. On “Hands Like Rain” and “Don’t Waste Away,” he counters that emotion with a certain hope and elegance, and a certain defiance creeps in on “Good Life” and “Save Yourself” (and Lisa Germano’s fiddle really makes “Don’t Waste Away”).
If there is a miscue on this album, it’s the slightly discordant “Storekeeper,” which comes off to me as a weak attempt to imitate Steve Earle. There may also be something in the fact that McMurtry blew me out of my chair with the first two tracks on the disc, “Where’s Johnny?” and “Vague Directions.” “Where’s Johnny?” is a stellar documentation of disillusionment and failed promise, while “Vague Directions” is just...eerie. Freaky. Disturbing. I’m still not, after all this time, sure what it’s about, but I love it.
James McMurtry is an underappreciated American treasure, and Candyland is one of his best efforts.