There are a few perfect songs on Guy Clark's The Dark. Anyone who's ever loved a pet will recognize the pure, blood-tasting rage of "Queenie's Song," dedicated to a dog deliberately shot in Santa Fe on New Year's Day. "She Loves to Ride Horses" describes the kind of woman even Texans find unattainable, and its melancholy regret provides a quick fix for those who can't get to the foothills. But the rest of the CD finds Clark diddling around with metaphors or telling tales that don't quite work as his own, such as "Homeless" and "Soldier's Joy, 1864." They aren't awful songs, but no one buys Guy Clark CDs to hear him try on personas.
James McMurtry, on the other hand, is more himself than ever with Saint Mary of the Woods; as a result, he's put together his finest collection since his first, the classic Too Long in the Wasteland. The people here are an absolute mess, but they're real. "Out Here in the Middle," a love song about relishing life in the kind of dried-up town people tend to flee, is played without irony or bitterness. "Gulf Road," a tale of empty drunkenness fully shared by two, feels like McMurtry pulling up his shirttails and showing us his gray skin.
The last song on the record, "Choctaw Bingo," might be the best thing he's ever done. (Hell, it might be better than his daddy's Lonesome Dove.) On this tune, McMurtry takes a gleeful, unapologetic look at a family in which the patriarch sells meth because his 'shine don't sell; the football-coach success story revels in illegal ammo, and, under certain circumstances, second-cousinhood is no barrier to intimacy of the most raucous nature. McMurtry reveals every detail in a wonderfully staggering swamp roll, driven by Ian McClagan's organ and Stephen Bruton's electric guitar, and it's great to hear him rock for a change.