A sober – and sobering – examination of all that is crooked, cockeyed and otherwise out of kilter in America’s current political climate, Life is the latest state of the union address from South Florida stalwart Jim Wurster.
Wurster, who took up the mantle of socially prescient singer/songwriter upon the 1995 dissolution of his beloved Miami band Black Janet, spent 33 years teaching high school history and has released several well received albums in the Americana genre over the years . As a citizen and an artist, he’s always kept the watchdog’s eye on Washington, turning what he sees as his country’s slow-but-steady descent into malaise and moral bankruptcy into gritty, bare-bones poetry. To that end, he’s been compared to everyone from Leonard Cohen to Townes Van Zandt to Tom Waits.
Through “Cold Hard World,” “Pie in the Sky,” “Standing in the Fire” and the free-range handful of others on the album, Wurster is taking a good, long look at Life, 2018.
“I guess you could say I’m a cynic,” he explains. “We’re in one big mess, and I don’t know if there’s any way of getting out of it, regardless of who actually takes the place of the current occupant of the Oval Office.”
He’s sounded the alarm before, of course. “I think it’s more extreme this time. My main concern is that this global warming is going to be catastrophic. I think there’s no going back.”
Just like life, Life also has moments of shimmering, unexpected beauty, each an oasis on the bleak terrain – on “Sweet Melody in the Wind” and “When We Met,” Wurster duets with Diane Ward on a beautiful, country-rocking ballad and a heartbreaking paean to a lifetime of worthy commitment, respectively. And “Saline” has a misty, Celtic feel, mysterious and beguiling – a sweet and simple love song disguised as old-world mythology in a minor key.
The rich texture of Life, Wurster is quick to point out, is due to the extraordinary ears – and fingers – of producer Jack Shawde, who also played just about every instrument on the album.
“I listen to the lyrics and try to ascertain the message Jim is trying to convey,” says Shawde, who claims as production heroes acoustic-music master Jon Leventhal, and Daniel Lanois, known for creating atmospheric aural mini-worlds behind his artists.
“Because the lyrics, and the vocal, are the most important things,” says Shawde. “You can have all the production in the world, but if it doesn’t serve the lyric and the vocal, then the production is kind of pointless.
“I didn’t want to take away from the vocal and the message, but I wanted to make the music interesting, ethereal, moody and vibe-y. To create an atmosphere that hopefully complimented his songs.”
“Standing in the Fire” is ferocious, Dylanesque rock ‘n’ roll; “Cold Hard World” is an impenetrable and spooky story-song. “Master of Deception” bites like classic Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Nowhere is Shawde’s less-is-more approach more obvious than “Guns and Money,” the album’s stark, chilling closing track. Wurster sings, world-weary and tremulous, over a simple acoustic guitar figure. Halfway through, the mood is punctuated by the low rumble of a solo cello, then by the gossamer ghost of a barely-there string section.
After the album’s fleeting moments of sweetness, with “Guns and Money” Jim Wurster’s look at Life comes full circle. “I wrote an earlier version of that one after Columbine,” he says.
“I updated it. I took out the reference to Charlton Heston, who was president of the NRA then, and replaced it with Oliver North, the current president. And the sad thing is it’s just as relevant as it was back then. Nothing’s changed.”