Album Review: Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison — Cheater’s Game
It’s fitting that the cover of Willis and Robison’s new album depicts the vagaries of love as a pinball game. For a small investment—a dance, a bottle of beer or glass of whiskey—lovers flirt with the chance of getting lucky, hurtling toward a night of love and maybe the bonus of discovering they’re made for each other, or careening toward a night of shattered dreams filled with tears.
In the first album they’ve recorded together in their seventeen years of marriage, Willis and Robison soulfully, boisterously, and humorously explore the many facets of this exhilarating, dangerous, sometimes satisfying, sometimes terrifying, and often sad game. Rolling through seven new songs penned by Robison and six covers of songs by artists including Don Williams, Hayes Carll, Robert Earl Keen, and Lawrence Shoberg, Willis and Robison bounce from upbeat waltzes and Cajun-inflected stomps to slow, country ballads.
On the album’s title track, Willis captures the yearnings of a woman who openly admits just how painful it is to lose her man to the game, but also just how desperately she is to stay connected to him, no matter the hurt: “It’s a cheater’s game, you’re just breaking me down/I come running every time you call/I always catch you when you fall/I get it, it’s plain to see/Every way, she ain’t me/But did you really have to take me down this way.” Pete Finney’s soaring steel guitar break echoes the singer’s desolate mournfulness.
On the Dave Alvin-penned “Border Radio,” Willis and Robison join voices from the first note to sing the tale of a woman whose one hope of connecting to her “man who’s gone” is by dedicating songs to him on a radio to which she hopes he’s also listening. The duo captures the beauty and hope of Williams’ lovely ballad, “We’re All the Way,” and Willis’s emotional voice captures the longing and regret of a chance encounter in Carll’s “Long Way Home.”
Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” sits in the middle of the album, and Willis nails the “I-can’t-quit-you-baby” tone of this song far better than either Bailey himself or Dickey Lee, who took it to the top five of the country charts in 1976. The song races off briskly with fiddles, and when Willis croons the words—”The sun didn’t shine this morning/It’s been raining the whole day through/Suddenly without warning, you found somebody new/That’s when the first tear came, falling from my eyes/ I’m beginning to feel the pain, seeing nothing but cloudy skies”—we ache with her, knowing that just as the tears cloud her judgment and her day, no amount of tears can wash away the hurt that this broken heart feels.
Cheating songs dominate the country jukebox, but “Cheater’s Game” captures the complexity, the heartache, and the despair of cheating, or the fond memory of cheating, with an emotional depth that many cheating songs alone can’t and don’t portray. Willis and Robison attain their highest score on this album, and leave us hoping they play a bonus round.
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