Despite the competing claims of such as Mark Ronson and Brian (Danger Mouse) Burton, T Bone Burnett may be the most interesting producer working in popular music at the moment. Equally comfortable helming award-winning soundtracks for Cold Mountain, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, and reacquainting singers like Tony Bennett, Roy Orbison, Cassandra Wilson and kd lang with their roots, his manifold talents combined to powerful effect on last year's peerless Raising Sand collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. But until 2006's The True False Identity, his packed diary left Burnett little time to pursue his own muse.
Most of the songs on Tooth of Crime were written at the request of Sam Shepard, for a 1996 musical production of his 1972 play of the same name, and have been reworked and added to through the intervening years. He describes Shepard's original play as involving "zones of fame" in which people can become celebrities, without anyone outside that zone being aware of them. On Burnett's album, these zones are transformed into a series of tableaux depicting the various failings and frustrations of our times, from single-issue themes like drugs ("Dope Island") and media ("Telepresence") to the more generalised complaints of a track such as "The Rat Age", in which ghostly echoes of tambourine and twang, and the subdued lowing of mournful horns, accompany Burnett's declamation concerning the shifting moralities of an increasingly dystopian culture: "We welcomed the genetic code/ And left it bleeding by the road."
It's a format that enables Burnett to adopt a variety of personae, from the confused suitor of "Kill Zone" wondering "Can we untangle guilt and innocence?/ How hard we torture this ambivalence", to the devilish protagonist of "Anything I Say Can and Will Be Used Against You" spreading his virus of temptation: "I will disengage your mastery/ Until all you love is blasphemy". The latter boasts of having a "torture chamber orchestra", here employed furnishing a predatory jazz-noir backdrop that's equal parts Barry Adamson and Tom Waits.
The arrangements possess great depth and diverse character, which almost makes up for Burnett's reluctance to sing, rather than narrate. But if one discards such vocal expectations, and treats Tooth of Crime like an update of the jazz'n'poetry format, its abundant pleasures become apparent.
Pick of the album: 'The Rat Age', 'Swizzle Stick', 'Here Come the Philistines', 'Anything I Say Can and Will Be Used Against You'