Whether he likes it or not, Jeff Bridges’ new self-titled album falls squarely in the long shadow of his award winning portrayal of fallen country singer “Bad” Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart. The album’s line-up of contributors certainly doesn’t help separate it from the film: producer and Americana legend T-Bone Burnett returns after his award-winning direction on the Crazy Heart soundtrack, Ryan Bingham (of “The Weary Kind” fame) jumps in on vocals for a few tracks, and three of the writers from the soundtrack are back, responsible for six of the album’s ten cuts. Still, it’s important to note that Bridges was making music long before he donned a haggard beard, world-weary demeanor, and red Gretsch in Crazy Heart (his first album Be Here Soon released in 2000), and so it’s quite possible there is as much Bridges in Bad Blake as there is Bad Blake in Bridges on this album.
The album gets off to a nice start with the late Stephen Burton’s “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do”, also the first single off the project, jumping straight into twangy country guitar and a steady bass/snare cadence before Bridges’ enters with his laid-back, baritone drawl. The lyrics border on trite (“I know that you’ve been feeling down and blue/But there ain’t nothing really really wrong with you”), but Bridges has always been so charismatic that under his delivery they give the sense of being more earnest and plainspoken than simplistic. It’s an enjoyable slice of Americana, and this was definitely the track I was humming hours after the last note faded.
The second track, “Falling Short”, calls to mind Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack to Into the Wild, with sparse, ethereal instrumentation mixed with haunting vocal harmonies. The drums really carry the song, building from sparse bass hits to swelling tympanis to marching snare rolls, and Bridges’ idiosyncratic lyrics, which he penned himself, keep things interesting, if a bit strange (“Falling short, I hit the spot/Of the place where I was shot/from the womb of my mother/I’ve fallen short but is there another/place…”).
Eventually, however, I found myself really wishing that Bridges and company would have thrown in at least one barn burner, because the low-to-mid tempo flow of the album starts to get a bit tiring and same-y after a while. “Tangled Vine” at least falls into a nice, Tom Waits-esque minor key groove with a driving stand-up bass line carrying the momentum, and the vocals again center on Bridges’ slightly askew lyrical sensibilities (which he wrote here as well). At a mere 2:30 minutes, though, the track feels like it stops before it’s fully gotten started.
The same can’t be said for “Everything But Love” and “Nothing Yet”, which do a good job of wearing out their welcomes. Both tracks feature some warm, enveloping steel guitar, but the ambient soundscapes seems to swirl lazily about for the roughly 4:30 minutes each track takes. Bridges’ eternal cool here is almost a detriment, with his low, laidback voice doing little to pick things up. Lyrically, either track could have fit perfectly in the end credits of Crazy Heart; it’s almost hard to tell which character – Bridges or Blake – is doing the reflection here.
The 12-bar blues shuffle of “Blue Car” is the closest thing to a switch-up the album ends up offering, but even it begins somewhat lazily, with a mumbling Bridges repeating “I’m driving my blue bar, baby” until you wonder if he’s slipped into his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn from 2010’s True Grit. Burnett’s arrangement saves the day, however, as each successive cycle adds a new instrumental layer to the mix. It’s a pleasing build up, and by the end it evolves into a pleasing, head-nodding groove.
Bridges’ manages to carry most of that built up energy into the next track, “Maybe I Missed the Point”, with its swells of honky-tonk piano and shimmering guitar twang. Bridges’ delivery is at its most animated here, especially during the chorus, and the song smartly wraps things up before wearing too thin.
That’s a lesson that “Slow Boat” could have used. At six minutes, it’s the album’s longest track by a good minute, but it does very little with the extra time, quickly settling into a slow, organ-driven dirge. Bridges’ vocals are practically monotone, and the plodding pace, I hate to say, actually left me bored by the halfway mark, to the point that I had to fight the urge to skip to the next track. The guitar eventually kicks in with a bluesy solo to salvage things, but its arrival over four minutes in is far too late. Someone really should have taken a razor to this one, or at least justified the length by adding some variety.
“Either Way” puts the vocals far higher up the mix, but it’s otherwise the same sparse to full, slow tempo build up that we’ve been hearing all album long. As Bridges’ croons, “I was going too fast in the breakdown lane”, you can’t help but wish he’d have done the same thing for at least one of the tracks on the album.
The album ends on a high note at least with “The Quest”, the only song on the album driven by acoustic guitar. The prominence of the acoustic guitar instantly calls to mind Crazy Heart’s famous song “The Weary Kind”, and again this could easily have been a song performed by Bad Blake after his final act revelation in the movie. The bright acoustic guitar and steady drums breathe some life back into the album, and provide one of the few truly memorable tracks.
For fans of Crazy Heart and of everything Bridges, his self-titled album certainly delivers some enjoyment, but the laid-back “Dude-ness” of it all starts to wear thin around the halfway mark. There are a few memorable tracks, and the whole project is decidedly pleasant at least, but were it not tied to the larger-than-life Bridges (and to a lesser extent his award-winning turn as Bad Blake), you’d have to wonder if the album would ever have gotten made, especially coming over a decade after his last one. Still, if you’re in the mood for a slice of some lesser Americana, and don’t mind a listening experience that fades off into the sunset pretty quickly, Jeff Bridges is a fine choice.
Or at least, that’s just my opinion, man. You thought you were getting through this without a Lebowski reference, didn’t you?