So finally Greg Trooper gets a deal on what amounts to a real label. And while it's a label normally associated with bluegrass and superpickers, that's fine. Sugar Hill has issued records by Guy Clark, too. It's about time. On Floating, Trooper reveals once again that he is an artist of the old school, one for whom development is a journey, not a destination. Each album stronger than the last -- which is saying something when you've never released a bad one -- is an exercise not only in the language of lyric writing and ...
So finally Greg Trooper gets a deal on what amounts to a real label. And while it's a label normally associated with bluegrass and superpickers, that's fine. Sugar Hill has issued records by Guy Clark, too. It's about time. On Floating, Trooper reveals once again that he is an artist of the old school, one for whom development is a journey, not a destination. Each album stronger than the last -- which is saying something when you've never released a bad one -- is an exercise not only in the language of lyric writing and melody sculpting but also in the intimate communication that is supposed to occur between singer and listener. Trooper's songs on Floating are the musical equivalent of the poetry of somebody like Kenneth Patchen. His eye is keen, looking for the smallest, seemingly most insignificant detail in a shadowy street-corner scene, and his ear is even keener, picking up the whispers and silent conversations kept within but held in common experience and spoken, laughed, and cried from. The title track is a slow country song that addresses the sight and feel of a river with all of its pastoral memories for the protagonist, until one day the dead and bloodless body of a young girl floats up and rests on its banks. There is no judgment, just the question and the witness, as also in the two tracks that open the album, "The Road Is Long" and "Where My Tears Break Through" (written with Buddy Mondlock). The former, set to a shuffling country-rock beat and ringing guitars, states in passionate form the simple fact that, despite devastation by love, there is nothing left but to move along a step at a time to some unforeseen destination. On the latter -- a country song with Buddy Miller guesting alongside members of the 77's, a fine rock band -- the protagonist bears witness to the fact that life is tough, with murder, environmental ruin, and horrific news abounding, and that one can only remain steady and hold his ground. But it's in the moment of a lover's assurance, in the gesture of a glance, a kiss, the promise of meeting the next day, or being told that one is loved that the tears come to the surface, because they cannot be contained by the joy and searing admittance of need in the human heart. But Trooper is not sentimental, nor is he cheerless. "Lucky That Way" is a humorous acknowledgment that love can be out of reach despite one's good fortune in many areas. There is a little bit of rock & roll in all of Trooper's country tunes, and in his most rocking cuts the feel of a laid-back Sunday country song is a ghostly presence ("Hummingbird"). But he's not limited here, either. "Apology" is a soul tune worthy of anything Willy DeVille ever cut. But it is on "Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)" -- not to be confused with Tom Russell's -- that the totality of Trooper's gift is revealed. In waltz tempo, he tells the story of Ali teaching by his example, first as a man broken by Parkinson's and lastly as a champion who overcame all odds to become one, that the sum total of humanity is generosity. And Trooper's voice rings with the lines: "...But listen when this old warrior speaks/'I am the greatest,' he said with a grin/But he was talking about you/Not about him/And was teaching me the meaning of Christmas." The impression, the eye of Ali as a trembling man in whom dignity still reigns and for whom generosity is a way of life, is borne out by a tune simple and elegant enough not to get in the way of such a profound and moving lyric. Steve Earle writes in his liner notes that Trooper is one of the few songwriters whose songs he covers when playing live. That's a compliment to be sure, but Trooper is easily as honest and searing as any of his peers, Earle notwithstanding. Floating is as fine a country-rock record as you are likely to come across -- ever. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi