TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Robbie Fulks has been recording since the mid-'90s, making music that's difficult to categorize. He's written country songs about how compromised most country music is, and while he's fond of folk and blue grass, he pleases concert audiences with covers of hits by Michael Jackson and Cher. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Fulks' new album "Gone Away Backward," is one of his most sustained and subtle efforts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE I FELL")
ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) Daddy used to catch his supper in this river. Now you can't swim it. Smells like a 20 ton truck full of paint thinner sank down in it. Come visit a spell, see the plaque to our war fallen. Nothing but a good time. Some guy...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: With "Gone Away Backward," Robbie Fulks has made an album that feints in the direction of nostalgia while grappling very much with the here and now. Even for a singer-songwriter known for his clever twists and turns, it's a considerable achievement.
The song that led off this review, called "Where I Fell" is a softly beautiful melody encasing a lyric about an economically depressed area that's left the narrator hopeless, jobless and, perhaps soon, homeless. He feels trapped, and trapped and bitter is a mood at which Fulks excels; it exhilarates him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG I RIDE")
FULKS: (Singing) It's rye grass in the wintertime, but flowers in the spring, but Texas in the summer is nigh on supreme. I went up on Jackson Hill. At a diner I sat down. And I waved at every stranger just to move the air around. It's long to ride for the little I gain.
TUCKER: The jaunty fiddle and banjo that propel that song, "Long I Ride," is an upper with a downer, a bluegrass breakdown in a couple of ways. The words describe a life spent dwelling in futility. At the same time, the music insists that the journey is a spirited one, not without its deep but fleeting pleasures.
In general, "Gone Away Backward" is a work of great, accomplished craft about the pointlessness of crafting anything you care about, because the world is just going to ruin it on you. That is, if you don't ruin it yourself by drinking it away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
FULKS: (Singing) One year free and single. And my, how we've grown. You swing with the stars while I'm in this bar drinking along. Yes, you're flying high. Live it up while you can. But when you get to the bottom, don't reach for my hand. Don't think 'cause I've fallen...
TUCKER: The centerpiece of "Gone Away Backward" is "That's Where I'm From," sung in the voice of a character who's living in the suburbs and hating it. But he puts up with it because he thinks it'll help his family's future. Nonetheless, he yearns for the bucolic landscape and lifestyle that he left behind from his childhood. It's a long song, one that takes its time building to its full intensity. Here's a chunk of the second verse.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHERE I'M FROM")
FULKS: (Singing) Night school on a fast track, no cause to look back. That place put a scar on my soul. And I swore my young ones would never know hunger and a good life is all they know. Well, I've watched them grow. Now I see one thing separates them from me. And that's where I'm from, where time passes slower. That's where I'm from, where it's yes ma'am and no sir.
(Singing) You can't tell I'm country, just you look closer. It's deep in my blood. White collar and necktie, that's where I've come. Half naked in the moonshine, that's where I'm from.
TUCKER: Throughout this album, Fulks' voice has a ringing power - he's a casually amazing singer. The songs are filled with acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. It partakes of folk, country, bluegrass and honky-tonk even as the shape of the songs and the content of the lyrics close off much chance of any one of these genres claiming the music as its own.
This has long been the difficulty of Robbie Fulks' commercial appeal, even as a work as vivid and moving as "Gone Away Backward" confirms his reputation. At one point here, he sings: You're living like there's no tomorrow. I live like there's only yesterday. But that's another bit of slyness. Fulks sees the present with clear eyes and a full heart.
GROSS: Music critic Ken Tucker reviewed "Gone Away Backward" by Robbie Fulks. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. You can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.