By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


March 23, 2006

The older that we grow, the less we seem to know/

But we still recite the old prayers everyday/

How we hope the bomb won't drop and all the wars will stop/

And when our heart breaks that the pain will go away/

It goes away, it might take years or a hundred thousand tears/

But one day the sky will clear, it goes away

-- "It Goes Away"

Self-proclaimed outsider Tom Russell has, for really the first time in his career, looked inside himself to write about love on his stunning new album, "Love & Fear."

The songs are raw and honest, rich in imagery and experiences that are universal. Russell -- "The Pugilist at 59" of the first track -- has written about love before, and there were hints of this work on "Borderland" (2001). But these songs are personal.

Why now, after 20-plus years of putting out records?

"I might have been avoiding it earlier," he said recently from his home in El Paso, Texas. "I wasn't capable as a writer, or as a human being, of tackling it. Even though I was aware that 99 percent of all songs are about love -- or fake personal looks at love -- it didn't interest me 20 years ago. I was raised on cowboy music and Broadway musicals, so I was always writing about other people.

"But in the last five years, I went through a bit of turmoil and, as an artist, I wanted to look at that, to dig deeper. I wanted to write about my take on love and aging and going crazy and redemption."

Produced by Russell and guitarist Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams), "Love & Fear" bristles with startling, evocative images, supported mostly by folk and Tex-Mex textures. These are tough, frequently beautiful songs.

"Stealing Electricity," for example, was inspired by a newspaper photo Russell saw of a poor Mexican hanging dead from power lines, electrocuted trying to "get what he couldn't afford for free." The metaphor is grounded in the jolt we get, and the risk we take, in falling in love.

"Ash Wednesday" is awash in religious imagery; "Beautiful Trouble" and "The Sound of One Heart Breaking" spring from their titles; and the spoken-word, ZZ Top-meets-Bob Dylan rocker "Four Chambered Heart" reminds us that there are other people at the party when two people become a couple.

A handful of vitamins, dropped them on the floor/

My ex-girlfriends are laughing from the icebox door/

I put their photos up there, yeah we talk all the time/

But they ain't talking back now, the pugilist is 59

-- "The Pugilist at 59"

For "The Pugilist," Russell says, "I was sitting at my kitchen table and decided to just start with what was happening that day, after you get enough caffeine in you to get going.

"The record closes with 'Old Heart,' kind of the same thing done in a piano bar style. It could almost be a Sinatra song. So if there's any message -- and I hate the word 'message' -- it's that you've got to keep moving into it, got to keep throwing the jab, keep growing as an artist, keep going deeper within."

Russell, who will make his third appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" on April 19, returns to Off Broadway on Friday night. But he'll be without his longtime friend and accompanist, guitarist Andrew Hardin, who underwent surgery recently and is off the road for a couple of months.

Enter stand-in sidekick Michael Martin of the Austin, Texas, band, the Infidels -- a Mexican-style guitarist and "rock 'n' roll mandolin player," as Russell describes him.

"He takes the songs to a completely different place," Russell says. "He plays very deep inside the songs, simpler than Andy, and he made me see the songs in a different light."

Russell says the forced changes have "reset in my mind the job of the minstrel. It's just playing the songs. (His hero Bob) Dylan came to that focus point 10 years ago. He'll do it till he drops.

"And so will I. I have no other options. I don't own a TV."