Everybody quiet down for a second please. Turn off your cell phones and your BlackBerrys, logoff your Facebook and Twitter pages, hold that blog post, fold that laptop, stop and listen: The great Mose Allison has a new album out. Coaxed back into the studio by producer Joe Henry, the 82-year-old jazz pianist songwriting legend has recorded his first collection in ten years. Ten years! In this insufferably long moment of constant communication—all of us in love with the sound of our own digital voices, blathering our status every ten seconds—a stretch of silence like that is positively heroic. What could be a more appropriate response to a babbling world than keeping quiet, and who better than Mose Allison to deliver it? This is after all the man who wrote the 1976 classic “Your Mind is on Vacation”: “If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime / Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.”
It’s great to have Allison back, though, no matter how hard Henry had to drag him. Especially since The Way of the World, the sparse and spacious gem of a record, released March 23 on ANTI-, sounds just like a Mose Allison record. And bless Allison, Henry and ANTI- alike for resisting the pressure or temptation to have it any other way. The result is an album that, song after song, makes you shake your head and think, “Remember when music sounded like this?”
Allison surely does. In fact, he is one of the reasons it did. Since his first record in 1957, Allison has drawn from the music that surrounded him growing up in Tippo, Mississippi to weave a thread that connects American music from Delta blues through bebop to rock and roll. A widely and wildly influential songwriter, Allison has been covered and cited by everyone from the Who to the Yardbirds to Blue Cheer to the Clash to Eric Clapton to Bonnie Raitt to Elvis Costello to Ray Davies to the Pixies. There is something astounding about Allison’s ability to make plain the absurdity, frailty and insanity often referred to as being human in just a few lines of blues.
The Way of the World is no exception. If anything, time has sharpened Allison’s fascination and bemusement. He gives it to you straight, no chaser. With that great laconic deadpan, Allison effortlessly drawls lines like, “I know you didn’t mean it when you stole my coat / It just happened to be the logical one / I know you didn’t mean it when you slit my throat / You was just out with the fellas trying to have some fun.” He then mumbles and hums along just off mic as he delivers a swinging, delicate, improvised solo that recalls Thelonius Monk and Charles Brown. He follows it with the lines, “I know you didn’t mean it when you blew us up / You just happened to think it was a good idea / Ungrateful people tried to interrupt when you were just trying to make your viewpoint clear.”
Now that is something you don’t hear every day. Allison gives it to mankind right in the kisser like nobody else. But on a song like “I’m All Right,” he turns his attention closer to home with an intimacy carried by the kind of mundane, specific details most songwriters overlook. Did he just say “tube socks”? Was that “dental floss”? Right and real and strange, Allison’s heartbreak doesn’t traffic in clichés, instead chronicling the small things it actually takes to get through a day. The songs on The Way of the World are so efficiently and precisely written and produced, and so sympathetically accompanied by the musicians Henry has assembled, that it all seems to work. As the time between records, his vocal delivery and his playing show, Mose Allison is no hurry. It’s beautiful. Listening to him helps you slow down a little too. Like all of Mose Allison’s brilliant records, The Way of the World is the sound of a truly great artist coolly wrestling some semblance of sense into the world around him. Allison is so good he makes it sound like it’s no big deal. Just an old genius breaking the silence with music.