Bruce Hornsby Continues Innovative Streak With Shape-Shifting ”Flicted’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Bruce Hornsby is a musical chameleon. Whether it’s pumping out chart-topping hits with his MTV-era cohorts The Range, collaborating with country music mainstays such as Ricky Skaggs and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band“, or scoring a grammy-winning instrumental track for the Olympics with jazz legend Branford Marsalis, the Williamsburg, VA native has never been content to be boxed into any one particular genre. 

Even now, nearly fifty years after his first-ever public performances with his older brother Bobby Hornsby’s Grateful Dead-centric band Bobby Hi-Test & The Octane Kids, Mr. Hornsby remains as innovative and relevant as ever, thanks in part to his continued symphonic alliances with influential modern artists, including NYC’s renowned chamber ensemble yMusic and indie paragon Justin Vernon

‘Flicted, the latest studio offering from the ivory tickling minstrel, continues his dexterous ways with a formidable collection of material that challenges the listener, without being too overbearing, and is bolstered by a fresh batch of inspiring collaborations with some of today’s most prominent musicians, including Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend) and Danielle Haim (Haim). 

Originally written in 2020 and recorded in 2021, ‘Flicted represents the final chapter of a musical trilogy that commenced with the 2019 release of Absolute Zero and continued with Non-Secure Connection the following year. For this triptych of studio releases, Bruce eschewed his traditional songwriting methods and instead focused on a collection of audible “cues” he had developed while scoring soundtracks on various projects for director Spike Lee since they began working together in 1990. 

With Bruce’s touring schedule effectively being shut down due to the global lockdown, he returned home and immediately began investigating the unused material from the previous two albums which, along with some choice riffs provided by Los Angeles-area songwriter-producer Blake Mills – whom Hornsby describes as a “sprung-from-Zeus guitarist” – led to the production of his twenty-fourth solo studio release. 

Appropriately enough, ‘Flicted starts off with the first song Bruce wrote for this album, “Sidelines,” an intricate piece featuring a serene vocal performance from Ezra Koenig and teeming with Hornsby’s hallmark atonal melodies and lyrics that reference hysteria in all forms, from the Salem witch trials to the COVID-19 pandemic and even Don Delilo’s acclaimed postmodern novel “Underworld.”   

“Tag”, another song inspired by Delilo’s “Underworld” sports an industrial vibe thanks to some deep-registered piano work as well a rare appearance from Bruce on a twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar before one of the album’s highlights, “The Hound.” While the minimalist instrumentation that occasionally borders on avant-garde may not appeal to some of Mr. Hornsby’s more benign fans, everyone will surely appreciate the masterful lyrics which include gems such as “You can be forever known as the guy in the locker room who popped a bone / Or the guy in math who shit his pants or had the wet spot at the cotillion dance.” Seriously, how can anyone not love this man?

“Too Much Monkey Business”, a funky modern take on a Chuck Berry classic with a Leon Russell twist that sounds almost unrecognizable compared to the original in a manner that only Bruce Hornsby could pull off, also counts as the first-ever cover song to appear on any of Bruce’s solo studio releases, which is quite a surprise given the breadth of his recording catalog. 

The unexpected Chuck Berry tribute is juxtaposed nicely with “Maybe Now” & “Bucket List”, a pair of electronica-fueled tracks propelled by slick house beats that still manage to sound authentic, despite being so far removed from much of his past work, stylistically speaking. It bears repeating: a musical chameleon. 

After a trio of hard-charging entries, “Days Ahead” offers up a palette cleanser to the listener with its poignant lyrics, courtesy of wordsmith, and Bruce’s life-long friend, Chip deMatteo, alongside a breathtaking vocal duet with Danielle Haim that evokes memories of Shawn Colvin’s “Lost Soul” from Hornsby’s 1990 album A Night on the Town.

Lidar, a “…science song…about light depiction and ranging” as Bruce eloquently states, counts among the LP’s most pop-oriented tracks and sees Hornsby taking to his trusty dulcimer – because what’s pop-oriented music without some dulcimer? – before being followed up by another of the album’s standout moments, “Is This It”, an introspective piece in the same vein as Hornsby’s “Swan Song” that is inspired by Bob Dylan’s hotly debated “wild mercury sound” of the mid-sixties and comes to a triumphant conclusion thanks in part to the brilliant contributions from yMusic, who’s use of string & woodwind instruments adds an element of drama to the latter portion of the song while also acting as a nice complement to the sustain provided by J.T. Thomas on the organ. 

‘Flicted comes to a strong conclusion with a trio of diverse numbers that continue to showcase Bruce’s myriad influences. “Had Enough” is a modern and minimalist-at-times affair that runs the musical gamut from Bach to Prince while “Simple Prayer II” (a sequel of sorts to “Simple Prayer” from Levitate – 2009) is a tender offering that sounds like it was plucked from a theatrical production on Broadway thanks to a stunning vocal duet from Z Berg & Ethan Gruska. “Point Omega” is a fitting outro for Bruce’s trilogy as it features the jazz stylings of legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, who also recorded drums for the opening track on the trilogy’s initial album, Absolute Zero

And so ends one of the more adventurous eras of Mr. Hornsby’s illustrious career. After all, who else could take a collection of decades-old instrumental cues that were originally intended for the visual medium and turn them into not one, not two, but three separate full-length albums that can all stand on their own merit thanks to their innovative arrangements and uniquely captivating collaborations? Only Bruce Hornsby. A musical chameleon. 

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