Rodney Crowell is in phase three, maybe four depending how you break it down, of his distinguished career. And he seems quite comfortable in his role of elder(ish) statesman, if comfort is represented by having no problem eloquently sharing what's on his mind. This latest introspective outing finds Crowell working with Joe Henry, the singer/songwriter turned in-demand producer who's fresh off similar work with Loudon Wainwright III and Mary Gauthier. As massaged by Henry and constructed by the likes of Greg Leisz and Doyle Bramhall III, the music is too atmospheric - with pedal steel and pump organ fighting to be heard in the background like train sounds across the valley - to be pure roots or country. But it also is too rustic to be pure pop or rock. It's a sound that feels carefully engineered to provide the perfect platform for Crowell to try to make sense of the whole wide world (the title track and the stealthily hooky The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design) or just a personal sliver of it (Truth Decay and I've Done Everything I Can, a father-daughter study that's stirring both musically and lyrically).
Mortality, though, seems to be the overarching theme, nibbling at the corners of most of the 11 songs while taking a big bite out of a couple. The album-capping Closer to Heaven celebrates the wisdom gained over the passing of years in the form of a roll call of things that make Crowell happy balanced by things that don't. "I love Sissy Spacek, I love Guy Clark/All the biscuits and gravy I can eat with a fork," offers Crowell as the song begins to soar. When presented so directly and conversationally, Crowell's plain speak comes close to being poetry, and it nudges us all a little closer to joy.