T Bone Burnett
Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett
The Music Box's #8 reissue of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2006, Volume 13, #8
Written by John Metzger
Artists who haven’t burned up the charts with major hits enjoy the freedom of presenting overviews of their work in any fashion that they desire. At their best, these showcases trace a path from past to present that cohesively outlines the arc of a performer’s career. Such is the case with the aptly titled Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett. Released simultaneously with The True False Identity, the two-disc, 40-track retrospective takes an even-handed approach to examining T Bone Burnett’s canon, and it subsequently serves as a "making of" documentary that is designed to highlight with precision how he honed his craft before concocting his recent, critically acclaimed masterpiece. Purists might quibble about the fact that portions of Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett have been touched up with new mixes and vocal tracks, but these alterations only improve the final outcome. After all, much as the set’s title suggests, hindsight’s visual acuity is perfect.
Presented not chronologically but rather in a jumbled fashion, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett spends 2 ½ hours zigzagging its way through Burnett’s catalogue before landing in a pair of obscurities (the previously unreleased Bon Temps Rouler’ and a cover of J.B. Lenoir’s Man Don’t Dog Your Woman from Wim Wenders’ The Soul of a Man) that, for all intents and purposes, ushered in the latest chapter in his career. Although its density can be daunting, the thoughtful manner in which the collection connects the material through common lyrical and musical themes makes the outing far more cohesive than it initially might appear to be. Neatly divided into five-track segments, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett exudes the aura of a four-LP box set, and viewed in this fashion, its contents become easier to absorb. Granted, some of Burnett’s experiments — such as the multilingual, opera-as-cinema strangeness of The Image or the hallucinatory ambience that clings to Hefner and Disney — don’t always succeed. Even so, it’s impossible not to hold his adventurous, trial-and-error spirit in high esteem, and the misses truly are few and far between.
What’s particularly fascinating about Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, however, is the manner in which the set congeals so naturally, almost in spite of its stylistic diversity. It helps, of course, that at first glance, nearly everything is imbued with a Beatle-esque disposition. In particular, Burnett tucks the mannerisms of John Lennon and, to a lesser extent, George Harrison into nearly every track. Hula Hoop, for example, imagines Lennon delving into Hawaiian fare, while the acoustic blues of Primitives, on which Burnett is supported by dobro master Jerry Douglas and bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer, places the Plastic Ono Band’s naked catharsis inside a bluegrass-tinged framework. Elsewhere, the spry, island-flavored pop of Power of Love contains echoes of George Harrison’s solo work; Over You hints at Paul McCartney’s mid-’60s, country-folk ruminations; and to complete the cycle, Ringo Starr makes a guest appearance on Born in Captivity, a song that was recorded as part of Burnett’s stint with The Alpha Band.
As Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett progresses, however, other textures begin to bubble to the surface. Ritchie Valens is filtered through River of Love; Bo Diddley by way of Buddy Holly percolates through the spiritual Tear This Building Down; House of Mirrors borrows from Lou Reed; both Power of Love and No Love at All channel The Everly Brothers, while When the Night Falls and Kill Zone conjure Roy Orbison; The Murder Weapon drags U2 through the Texas mud; and The Dogs, another track from Burnett’s days with The Alpha Band, is heavily influenced by the material that he performed while backing Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
In his liner notes for Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, Bill Flanagan astutely refers to Burnett as a "subterranean connector between current pop and the secret history." Undeniably, there are a lot of musical and lyrical ideas stuffed into each of his albums, and half of the fun always has been in deciphering the code. With The True False Identity, however, Burnett took his work to another level entirely by transforming his amalgamation of styles into something that was all his own. Although few tracks on Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett are nearly as transcendent, all of its material is solidly performed, and in the end, it simply is a joy just to hear how he fits rock ’n‘ roll’s pieces together to form a new, larger framework for the future.
Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box