Nixon is regarded by many critics as the album which brought Lambchop 'through' the commercial membrane and into the mainstream consciousness. Of course the musical purist would be right in asserting that the majority of critics, writing with the interests of their mainstream-reliant platform in the back of their minds and the tips of their fingers, will at best exclaim an album as 'breakthrough' on the back of impressive sales and public approval, at worst claim this due to their own frantic conclusion that the music is more accessible and simple. The idea that Lambchop were no good before Nixon's acclaim is absurd: How I Quit Smoking is but the highlight of a nineties catalogue which was hailed by real critics as very fine indeed.
However, the truth is Nixon is more accessible, and although describing it as simple would be something of a travesty the word 'refined' does fit the bill. Nixon can I think be likened to The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin; not only are both quite extraordinary in their unorthodox but undiluted beauty but both were rightly hailed as albums which finally managed to grab onto widespread recognition. Obviously neither of these bands are the type which need or even want, in the truest sense of the word, such mainstream celebration. Yet it is undeniably a great thing to know that a lot of people are listening to such great art, even if you do have to feel for the die hard fan who has a copy thrust into her hand with the words 'hey you gotta check this new band out, I think this is their first album or something'.
The title rather boldly suggests that Nixon is an album with the infamous former US President in mind. Indeed, an exploration of the spartan but pleasantly antique looking sleeve notes reveals two pictures, both of Nixon: the fact that both show Tricky Dick in a rather undignified light (depicting a small furry toy with a plastic Nixon head, followed by a black and white photo of Nixon having beer poured over his head during a televised interview) suggest that Lambchop possibly don't have the greatest respect for their country's 37th President. However, that said there is nowhere near enough evidence to claim this as fact, firstly as the Nixon reading list (also in the booklet) provides a balanced selection, and secondly as Richard Nixon does not appear to have any overt place in what the record is about. There are very sporadic references to loosely 'Presidential' concepts ('Such power rarely deviates, in times of love, in times of hate, another spring will come'), but other than that it seems any links to the man must be found deep in the subtext and any overall political stances the band appear to take within the ten songs.
Yet this really doesn't matter much due to the aforementioned fact that the music works just fine without bearing resemblance to its title. Nixon's main strength is its strong foundation of simple wisdom: creative crux Kurt Wagner leads the listener through a landscape of experience and scenario, life's sometimes painful realities described with an often childlike romanticism, mirrored in the apple pie image of two children throwing stones into a stream under the backdrop of an old rural barn which adorns the front cover. Indeed, I often think that Richard Nixon's role is actually that which he played in Wagner's own life: born in 1958, Wagner would have spent much of his formative early teens, that transition from child to grown up which has such a strong voice here, within Nixon's turbulent terms. Opener 'The Old Gold Shoe' summarises what is to come, a steady, measured statement of a lot of what the songs are about. It is sad, almost mournful, but yet the informal delivery and calm music mean that it is hard to feel any negative or downbeat vibrations. The fifth verse especially is an excellent example of the kind of profundity that this album is soaked in: 'The kids out in the street take their toys and break them, look at them, then walk away, the guy on the cross is holier than I, but then again he’s made from plastic'. Those days of skimming stones will come to an end, and what follows will never be that perfect.
Although this lyrical strength continues for the duration of Nixon, the musical side of proceedings does weaken for the second 'half', with The Petrified Florist and The Butcher Boy in particular being somewhat nondescript dirges: the former lacks any sort of vital momentum and the latter is a mess, sounding a bit like Wagner has hired the Mars Volta to play alongside his own restrained, controlled band members without any sort of thought into how unnatural this would sound. However, everything up to and including What Else Could It Be? is, to be blunt, not far off perfect. Anyone still trying to categorize the band as country must now most definitely add the prefix of 'alternative', and probably preface that with 'very'. Nixon does nod here and there to a country influence, but the only real untainted beacon of Nashvillanity is the rocking chair anthem The Distance From Her To There, and it is by far one of the most disinteresting moments on the record. Otherwise, even the countrified base of The Book I Haven't Read has been promptly flooded with a symphony intro.
Yet despite the collective strength of the majority of these songs, the centrepiece of the album lies in tracks 4 and 5. Up With People (coming directly after the stirring, almost cheerful breeze that is You Masculine You) is a glorious song, full of happy energy and a driving, positive purpose. Building on a simple three chord, summery guitar riff, the atmosphere is built with a bright brass section, sprightly acoustic picking and the most crucial element, a kind of half gospel, half choir group of backing singers who clap the song along at such a tempo that you're feeling good inside before the first minute is over. Essentially a call to join in with life, for its sheer uplifting muscle it really stands out.
However, it is succeeded by the even more magnificent Nashville Parent, quite simply one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs ever recorded. A song told in the perspective of someone looking over their town, it is full of regret and sorrow: 'But it looks so cold there from the bottle, another part of another ritual, standing in the kitchen, arms are braced against the counter, swallowing like mercury down the drain', 'Take the b train or the shuttle, at the exit have a smoke, try and spit onto the sidewalk, instead you wipe it off your chest'. Here is a place full of dysfunctional, frustrated drunken family brawls and ruthless, predatory events picking off lonely people who wait, helpless, in the coldness and the detachedness. Whilst Nashville Parent's message does not suggest complete desperation, this is angst in real form, a musical poetry which puts Linkin Park and their hordes of disconsolate cousins into place. With its wistful strings, despondent harmonics and just overall softness, Nashville Parent never fails to provide perspective or provoke thought.
This expansive approach arguably reached its height with 2004's organic, coherent Awcmon, and since then the band have experimented with a more minimalist sound, with the 'Nashville String Machine' playing much less of a part. However, despite the stumbles late on, Nixon remains a truly wonderful record, teaching the idea that powerful emotions can be articulated through often subtle, often quiet and often enjoyable music.