Billed as a country album, the latest LP from the idiosyncratic soul artist born Jerry Williams Jr. examines grief from a distance, taking time to savor life’s little sweetnesses.
Jerry Williams Jr. knows how to tell a colorful story because he’s lived one. Ever since a revelatory psychedelic experience in the late 1960s, the 77-year-old musician and producer has issued some two dozen volumes of far-out funk and soul explorations as his larger-than-life alter ego, Swamp Dogg.
In 2018, Williams told Rolling Stone that he wanted to “shock the shit out of [listeners]” with Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, an album that made heavy use of the titular audio program to warp his voice as he continued to reckon with the death of his wife, Yvonne, in 2003. His new album Sorry You Couldn’t Make It restores him to a more even keel, examining grief from greater distance while savoring life’s little sweetnesses. Billed as Williams’ country album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It hits its thematic marks within funkified arrangements. “I’d Rather Be Your Used to Be” and “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg” are exemplary tearjerkers; “Family Pain” addresses the intergenerational fractures of poverty and addiction. “A Good Song,” meanwhile, feels like a zoomed-in update to Tom T. Hall’s plainly gorgeous “I Love.”
As on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, Williams is accompanied by a handful of guests. Justin Vernon and Poliça’s Ryan Olson, who helped Williams actualize his Auto-Tune landscapes, return to the fold; alongside them are Nashville titan John Prine, Jenny Lewis, and Olson’s Poliça bandmate Channy Leaneagh. Across the album, Vernon serves as an unobtrusive sideman on guitar. Prine first appears on “Memories,” but he and Williams find surer footing on closer “Please Let Me Go Round Again,” as they look back on life in wistful bewilderment. Prine’s affinity with Williams feels natural and immediate; set to a relaxed soul shuffle, their gentle ribbing makes a charming finale.
The record’s only real derailment comes at the end of “Memories,” when the song begins to garble and warp as though recorded on damaged tape. The analogy to human memory is a familiar one; here, it feels like an overt effort to prevent the atmosphere from getting too warm and nostalgic. (God forbid those glowing, lightly goofy guitar ripples linger, lest we start trusting our own rose-tinted glasses.) The more muted instrumental reverberations in the back half of “Billy” pursue the same effect, tilting the song away from saccharine balladry.
Williams has long been celebrated as a cult figure, sharing his generous appetite for experimentation only among those curious enough to tune in for themselves. Half a century later, he remains a broad-minded explorer whose genre-free approach to his craft reveals fresh curiosities. But, as Williams lays out across Sorry You Couldn’t Make It, even his creative victories are bittersweet: He must go on living without the people with whom he’d most like to celebrate.
Buy: Rough Trade
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