Across 30 studio albums since 1970, Buffett fueled his scenic songs’ tropical, country-ish lilt with a smart, conversational brand of daylight-noir storytelling. With the release of “Equal Strain on All Parts,” his last studio album completed before his death in September of this year, it can be said that Buffett continued to write and sing from the same generous heart and curious mind he had in 1970, and with the same balance of tartness, holy goofiness and astute, picturesque, character-driven narratives that made his finest work ring true.
From its title track’s ruminations on his grandfather’s wise words to an album-closing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique” (featuring Emmylou Harris), with its “goodbye to sand and sea,” Buffett’s last studio album manages to be deeply elegiac, gorgeously melancholy, and weirdly, wordily sunny all at the same time. Fans couldn’t have hoped for a more magnificent or fulsome finale.
Featuring Buffett’s longtime instrumentalists of renown, the Coral Reefer Band, and guests such as Harris, Angelique Kidjo and Paul McCartney, the singer’s wise and wily party commences with “University of Bourbon Street,” featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. As you’d expect, a Crescent City vibe is present, and rollicking, with credit given to Orleans parish’s usual suspects, the Neville Brothers, Tennessee Williams and Jean Lafitte. Yet, to make it uniquely Buffett-esque, its author throws in this musical stanza:
“I sang on a paddlewheel boat
Floated down the Mississippi
Helped build a Mardi Gras float
And smoked a joint with a beautiful hippie”
If Buffett could be inspired by his grandfather’s advice about napping as a necessary key to life (“slipping away to God knows where”) on his album’s plaintive title tune, why not let a giddy dinner party with McCartney and each man’s wife influence the galloping rhythm and adventurously jazzy bridges of “My Gummie Just Kicked In”? Buffett absorbed every moment of every circumstance – a quiet lunch in a café, a loud party along an oceanfront, sharing weed with a lovely lady – like a sponge, rolled it round on his tongue and tossed out generous bon mots like they were bouquets of roses.
As he had so often during his career, Buffett allowed the power of music and the glory of the surf and his sails to act as analogies for a long life’s greater lessons. On the steel-drum soliloquies of, respectively, “Audience of One” and the pensively empathetic “Bubbles Up” (the latter co-written with Will Kimbrough), Buffett continued building sand castles the shoreline that benefitted as much from their wisdom and they did the vivid pictures in his head. When Buffett sings “When the journey gets long / Just know that you are loved / There is light up above / And the joy is always enough / Bubbles up,” it is as if he’s offering up a prayer to those cast adrift.
Buffett even finds time to reach back to his past glories (his early hit, “Come Monday”) and his general corps de spirit’s wanderlust on “Portugal or PEI.”
Fond as he was of a grand chanson and a handful of steel drums, “Ti Punch Café” – cowritten by Kimbrough, guest vocalist Kidjo, Pierre-Edouard Decimus and Jacob Desvarieux – merges both brands of song with the wild imaginings of Buffett’s lyrics coming across like a brocade of magic realism touchstones. And what could be more magically real than coming up with the rocking seaside obsession of “Fish Porn,” co-written with novelist-friend Carl Hiaasen and Mac McAnally?
As generous as he is to his Coral Reef band members as cowriters of many of “Equal Parts’” best original tunes, Buffett chose a meaningful handful of favorites – Noel Brazil’s searching “Columbus,” Harley Allen and Scotty Emerick’s “Like My Dog” – to round out his final album. Yet, no cover sounds as close to his own feeling of love and loss as Dylan’s gently swaying “Mozambique.” Together with Dylan’s original 1976-vintage duet partner, Harris, Buffett offers a contemplative period to life’s endless and often aimless journey in a manner even more seductive and free than Dylan did.
Over its course, “Equal Strain on All Parts” happily (and sadly) offers fresh lyrical imaginings of Buffett’s set-in-his-way wonder, and presents the melancholy hero of our story dancing on the conga line between the tiki bar and the heaven of the seas and skies.
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