Jules Shear isn’t being cagy when he insists he doesn’t know what the songs on his 13th studio album, One More Crooked Dance (Funzalo Records) – and first since 2013’s Longer to Get to Yesterday – are about. He really doesn’t, at least without being able to consult a lyric sheet, which is nowhere in sight at the moment. With nary a guitar, bass or drum in earshot, Shear didn’t have to wander far from his longtime Woodstock, N.Y., home, corralling locals Pepe (piano), touring partner Molly Farley (vocals) and the legendary John Sebastian (harp) at his neighborhood health food store and somehow cajoling them to join him at his friend’s nearby home studio.
Indeed, Shear will admit One More Crooked Dance is not a young man’s album, but from someone who has lasted over two decades (“I honestly don’t know how long we’ve been together,” he says) with wife and creative partner Pal Shazar, and is now examining that relationship in terms of his own mortality. Of course, Shear will only nod and offer, “I just write ‘em. And let them speak for themselves. And people will think what they wanna think.”
With just piano, vocals and the occasional harmonica interspersed, the 13 personal songs on One More Crooked Dance — its title a sly, Leonard Cohen play on man’s favorite sport — evoke the likes of one-time Woodstock resident Dylan (whose former house Jules can see out his window) Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, Elton John and Neil Young. The spare instrumentation, the effortless harmonies and Shear’s world-weary vocals give the record a gravitas deserving of his 40-plus years in the music business, starting with the Funky Kings (a precursor to the country-rock singer/songwriter sound), moving on to Jules and the Polar Bears and then an impressive solo career, with hits like Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” The Bangles “If She Knew What She Wants” and his own “Steady,” a co-write with Lauper. Not to mention catalog mainstays such as Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers’ “If We Never Meet Again”), Til Tuesday’s “[I Believed You Were] Lucky” and Alison Moyer’s Top 20 U.K. hit, “Whispering Your Name.” And he was the host (and co-creator) of the influential MTV Unplugged.
It’s safe to say, in his long and varied career, Jules Shear has never put out an album without guitar, bass and drums, so this is certainly a first, but when he’s asked about his method, he shrugs, “It was something we tried, and it seemed to be working out good,” he said about the stark, minimalist approach. “So we just kept going.”
The plainspoken approach covers the conundrum of maintaining passion while feeling safe, examining the domestic “Rules of the Game,” the things we do to self-medicate (“Painkiller”), “Tangled Up In Blue” love songs (“Be With You” the Elton John gospel plaint of “Looking for Me”), the war of the sexes (“The Hunter and the Hunted”) and the closing one-two punch of the exquisite Beach Boys harmonies in “When It’s Right” and the harp/piano interwoven through “Wrong Again,” the ultimate rejoinder, “You think to me/It’s nothing personal/And you’re wrong again.”
Jules Shear may be coy about lyrics like “The only way you get old is from wishing/Never wishing is a waste of time” (“This Flame”) or tease the primal mind-body dualism of “Half- Hearted Head,” but don’t believe him if he tries to tell you One More Crooked Dance isn’t personal. Or that he forgot what the songs mean. Or the dog ate his lyric sheet. Or whatever story he’s trying to sell you.
Is there any resolution to the yin-yang of human existence? Can we achieve any sort of inner peace and outer satisfaction? Is it all about just One More Crooked Dance?
“Whoa, what’s the question again?” Shear deadpans. “When people hear these songs, they’re not looking for answers to their problems, but listening to someone else who is dealing with it, too. And that’s all it should be, I think.”
One more question. What’s your secret to long-term happiness?
“That’s none of your business,” he guffaws. “Read between the lines.”
One More Crooked Dance is as good a place to start as any.