Review Summary: One of the finest albums penned by the late king of country kitsch.
The late Lee Hazlewood is a royal of country kitsch, an American oddity so rooted in the lexicon of Texas music traditions that he could only become a left-behind by his countrymen, destined to be more appreciated by Swedes than any States-born listener. He’s the stillborn king of flat-throated songwriters, barely able to carry a melody but certainly father to more than his share of tuneful never-were chart hits. “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’,” made famous by his collaboration with Nancy Sinatra
, gave him his greatest commercial success; there were other hits, too. But mostly, as a dedicated pop songwriter, Hazlewood is an also ran, one of the finest to ever grace a recording studio.
In that sense, Cowboy in Sweden
is a crown jewel failure, a diamond in the rough of lush Americana pockmarked with genteel grains of psychedelia. It features some of his strongest tunes, backed by dramatic arrangements that lend themselves to his cocktail of baroque pop, country and rock. Here, he leans heavily on his pop inclinations, utilizing the honey-lungs of Swedish songbirds Nina Lizell
and Suzi Jane Hokum
with approach similar to his work with Sinatra and Ann-Margret
, creating wonderfully overwrought dramas as easily as a home-cooked yarns. There’s playful languish here, curious eccentricity, but each arrives by virtue of Hazlewood’s approach as a songwriter and storyteller, which seems to be one part drugged pop svengali, one part banana cowpoke outlaw.
Of course, perhaps the most instantly notable feature of any solo Hazlewood cut is his vocal, an unremarkable monotone that makes Johnny Cash
sound like a versatile vocalist and suggests him as an alternative antecedent to the likes of The Silver Jew
’s David Berman or Lambchop
’s Kurt Wagner. The limitations of his vocal cords, however, are contrasted by the bounds of his melodic imagination, which is mounds more elastic to say the least. The vignette “Forget Marie” expresses the incompatible urge between his vocal limitations and melodic inclination; the dry shuffle makes good via a traipsing, resilient piano line, which some how lessens the impact of Hazlewood’s brittle ruminations.
“Pray Them Bars Away,” with its homey string section, might be an another exquisite example of Hazlewood’s melodicism, one that also sheds light on Hazlewood’s narrative drive and his artistic sensibility, an act catered to Nordic fantasies of the Wild West. The codified symbols of outlaw country-- the rollicking rhythm section, hopeless outlaw fatalism and the scent of Lubbock, Bakersfield and Tulsa-- are presented in a safe and sane fashion, complete with tasteful arrangements more akin to contemporaneous Nashville production. If Hazlewood’s brand outlaw country less ornery than Billy Joe Shaver
and less hopeless than Townes Van Zandt
though, it holds on to the driving ethos that unified those artists: a desire to escape the existing cliches of the 60s and 70s country mainstream and instead embrace the rebellion offered by the hippy vanguard.
Whereas most country artists went about this by returning to roots and establishing a body of personal work that resonated with American authenticity, Cowboy in Sweden
forgoes the former yet steadfastly pursues the latter. Indeed, the shades of honky tonk expressed here are the remnants of Hazlewood’s early career filtered through rose-colored glasses and long hair. Not unlike Gram Parsons
’ brand of “Cosmic American Music,” Hazlewood uses his pop and country roots and rearranges them into a psychedelic collage, El Topo
for the ears. The ubiquitous reverb and organ swell of “No Train to Stockholm” play up the surrealist quality behind the album’s titular curiosity, a stranger in a foreign land. Here, as well as on, “For a Day Like This,” Hazlewood finds himself adopting more than just the psychedelic pop sound, but also the protest ethic and lyrical themes of the pandemic hippy culture.
Arguably, the draw of Cowboy in Sweden
is its boutique appeal, an appeal that demands the attention of 60s baroque pop nuts and is sure to satisfy obscuro infatuations. Often just a shade too off-center for his time, the skill of Hazlewood is his ability to mend the threads of his disparate influences into a cohesive vision through his exceptional talents as a songwriter. The soppy sentimentalism and overblown orchestration will still throw off some, but without a doubt, Hazlewood always sates the kitsch itch.