Old songs, newly recorded, many of which are fine indeed.
Andrew Mueller 2011-07-18
Natural History is the second stirring of a long-postponed comeback by Souther, following 2009’s If the World Was You – the first new work the Eagles associate had issued in 25 years. Souther had not been entirely idle during that interregnum, doing bits and pieces of acting, and writing for other singers (Dixie Chicks, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, among others). Natural History, a collection of new recordings of variously aged Souther songs, amounts, in this context, to a reminder – to himself, perhaps, as much as to others – of his abilities and potential.
The obvious reference points are Jimmy Webb’s Ten Easy Pieces and Randy Newman’s two Songbook albums, in which the veteran songwriters surveyed their catalogues from a contemporary vantage point. Souther is no Jimmy Webb – he lacks the Wichita Lineman writer’s audacious willingness to court gaucheness in pursuit of glory. And Souther is no Randy Newman either, rarely flaunting any particular lyrical dash or angry edge.
But Souther does have his moments – frustratingly decorous and restrained though they can be. Prisoner in Disguise and Faithless Love, songs originally written to be sung from a female perspective – specifically, that of Linda Ronstadt – assume an interestingly vulnerable aspect when delivered in Souther’s husky croon. The versions of songs originally written with the Eagles – Best of My Love, Sad Café, New Kid in Town – reward their rescue from the depths of the legendary LA group’s decadence. I’ll Be Here at Closing Time was the clear highlight of If the World Was You, and sounds even better here – a ballad pitching equidistant between Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, and plausibly the best thing Souther has ever written.
It’s a shame that proceedings are so infuriatingly tasteful, everything embalmed in a cloyingly clean sheen. Judging by the similarly afflicted If the World Was You, this is clearly the choice of the artist, rather than a failing of the producer (Fred Mollin, who worked on Kris Kristofferson’s similarly structured The Austin Sessions in 1999, and was correctly content to let Kristofferson sound like a rock’n’roll singer). There are some fine songs on Natural History, which deserve better than being presented as if they were museum exhibits.