Jeff Bridges has said he worried for a while about being typecast as the smart but zonked-out character he played in “The Big Lebowski.” So maybe it’s not surprising that some early reviews of the actor’s T Bone Burnett-produced new album have suggested that it carries certain Dude-like qualities.
Certainly it’s low-key enough that you could say it doesn’t strive to do much more than abide.
But the “Big Lebowski” character Bridges really most resembles on record is the Stranger, the narrator played by Sam Neil who, you may recall, showed up just long enough to talk about about “the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself,” among other homespun-philosophical nuggets.
Along those same lines, “Jeff Bridges,” the album — possibly much like Jeff Bridges, the person — is all about the cowboy Zen.
By keeping both his voice and his ambitions low, Bridges avoids a lot of the traps that have befallen other actors-turned-singers. He doesn’t take the artistic chances Tim Robbins did on his recently released album debut, and so avoids any of the vocal and thematic embarrassments that the well-intentioned Robbins croaked his way into.
He’s neither as pretentious a singer/songwriter as Billy Bob Thornton was in his early country-rock career, nor as silly a genre revivalist as Thornton eventually turned himself into. Cooler than Costner? That goes without saying.
But, utterly listenable as the album is, you may come away from it admiring T Bone Burnett’s talent for framing modesty more than the innate likeability and unassuming musical charms Bridges brings to the table.
Curiously, Bridges wrote or co-wrote only three of the 10 tracks — curious because, when he made his indie-label bow in 2000 with a little-remembered album called “Be Here Soon,” he wrote a full six of the tunes on that recording. Maybe he’s gotten humbler in the intervening 11 years, feeling that his own compositions can’t compete with those of Texas music stalwarts like John Goodwin and the late Stephen Bruton, both of whom worked on the film “Crazy Heart” and make multiple writing contributions here.
The opening number, Bruton’s “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do,” works up a shiny, catchy, Buddy Holly-like feel … and it’s the last time the album rises to anything so much as a mid-tempo. Most everything else sounds designed for driving into the remnants of a West Texas sunset and musing on life as a slow drive into the unknown. Or “Slow Boat,” the simile in one of his original songs.
He’s a journeyman on “Jeff Bridges” in every sense of the word. “Lookin’ down that highway as far as I can see/Where I left so much of me …” “Well, it’s a good old car/But the clutch is a little loose/And the brakes are screaming/A song called ‘What’s the Use’/But it’s good for one more trip to you …” “Are we headed upstream?/The fog’s too thick to really see …” You get the metaphoric-transit picture.
Familiarity is almost everything here. If you feel like you’ve been on this highway with Bridges since first-picture-shows like “The Last Picture Show,” you may forgive the repetition of some of the imagery and settle into the passenger seat for this very comfortable midlife chat.
Burnett makes that easy enough, by putting to use the trademark sounds he’s turned into Americana institutions over the last 30-plus years — the tremelo and baritone electric guitars, the standup bass, brushes on snares, and Marc Ribot going a little crazy for a few seconds here and there — and throwing in Rosanne Cash and Sam Phillips as harmony sweeteners.
Bridges stays so well within his limited vocal range that you occasionally wish he’d work up a slight sweat and at least test it, but there’s something to be said for an actor knowing his limitations.
The two best tracks do come from the writing hand of John Goodwin, a friend of Bridges’ since the fourth grade: “Maybe I Missed the Point,” a pointedly self-searching eulogy for good deeds undone, and the closing “The Quest,” which transcends its journeying symbolism with a wise message about learning to know when you’ve replenished your spirit enough to do some hard work.
The most quotable moment comes when Bridges, in an original verse, sings, “Here is my seat/I do not pay rent/I’m delighted/I’m Buddhistly bent.” Critics may cock their eyebrows at that one, but both The Stranger would surely approve, and probably The Dude, too.