Review Summary: The Bible; non-paperback edition.
It's unsurprising 'The Bible' continues the logical progression established since 2016's 'FLOTUS' but what's interesting about this third album since then is how it alters the perception of this entire latter career stage; this is a weighty tome after the somewhat slight 'Showtunes' and as such practically begs fans to reassess not only each of these recent albums in terms of how they rank against each another, but also how this run rates when compared to the band's earlier material. There's certainly a solid argument that these last four albums have potentially provided two 'top eight' worthy entries in the Lambchop fifteen strong canon and 'FLOTUS' in particular is looking far less the oddity or curveball now that 'The Bible' has landed; it can finally be regarded as 'just another link in the chain', it's contents valued more by their merit and less by 'the curiosity factor'.
What also grounds this particular album within the Lambchop discography is that it has a lot in common with the last album that sounded like it could potentially end up a full stop on the band's career, 2012's 'Mr. M'; it seems telling that 'The Bible' is released on that album's tenth anniversary, a similarly sombre affair that shares an obsession with the passage of time, and ultimately, death. It only takes the simple exercise of comparing the opening 90 seconds of both albums and the similarity is uncanny, that same feel of a slow montage of nostalgic images playing at the end of some old weepy. While 'Mr. M's opener 'If Not I'll Just Die' wallowed in the mood established for its duration, this album's 'His Song is Sung' does shake things up before its conclusion; if the music doesn't quite 'burst into life' at the 3:10 mark it does at least wave at the audience and claim 'we're not dead yet' as glitchy electronic beats and horns lift the song's spirit (if not Wagner's delivery that remains steady, though now cast with more of a feel of defiance). Overall this track proves the band's mastery of their current sound and is easily one of the best pieces they've recorded since 2015.
The quality and atmosphere remain largely consistent throughout, though pleasingly 'The Bible' boasts at least the same amount of diversity in styles as 'FLOTUS', as well as some stylistic additions we've not encountered much before. There's a prominent funk influence at times, as well as soulful, near-gospel vocals that allow for actual choruses. The most successful pairing of these ingredients is on 'Whatever, Mortal' that opens with a very European flavour, almost like the Gotan Project, before those soul vocals are ushered in claiming 'mercy, I don't understand, it's not the way we planned'. The atmosphere is still reflective here, but not in a suffocatingly downcast fashion. More new territory is explored on the near-ambient 'Dylan at the Mousetrap' that combines elegant piano with dreamy waves of pedal steel guitar and a gentle chorus of voices; whether you feel this style is taking pointers from recent ambient country acts like Suss or that Lambchop effectively invented this style years ago is open for debate.
A number of songs here strip everything down to a few basic ingredients, usually piano, that manipulated vocal and some sampling, and again the results are never less than impressive. This is no mean feat, you only have to go back to last year's solo effort by Alexis Taylor (of Hot Chip) to see what can go wrong with minimal piano ballads flecked with subtle electronics and sung by an unconventional vocalist. Well, subtlety might as well be Kurt Wagner's middle name and on the mesmeric 'Daisy' he flexes like a champ, operating in his element. 'So There' is almost as unadorned (ok, there's some synth but the vocals are mostly 'clean' this time) but has more of a skip in its step and proves a late album highlight, a sweet shuffle before the sadness returns with the addition of rainy day windscreen wipers as the track concludes. All that's left from here is for the mood to be extended as the curtain drops; 'That's Music' is another cinematic track that brings everything full circle, recalling 'His Song is Sung' ("His song is sung? Hey, that's music" etc) .
When a band release something this well crafted it's hard to wish it to be their finale, but similarly to 'Mr. M' this not only feels like it would serve well as a farewell, it in fact feels like it would BEST serve as a farewell. Certainly it's a relief that Lambchop didn't sign off with 'Showtunes' as that would have undoubtedly left a feeling we'd been abandoned to ponder a less than definitive parting statement; that's not the case with 'The Bible', indeed this leaves the listener with the feeling the band may have effectively said everything they ever could at this point, that this album is the last 'book' of their own bible. Lambchop are nothing if not perverse so whether this does prove to be the end is of course a total mystery at this point - all we know is if it does, they did good.