As long as it's done without rilin' up Johnny Law, I have no problem with how much money you make. Really. When baseball fans moan about CC Sabathia raking in $20 million a year, or popcorn-scarfers roll their eyes because Matt Damon is getting $29 mil a flick, I defend the stars' ability to exploit the American money machine. It's a talent, a skill. You would if you could, I counter.
However, my Zen-like fiduciary understanding crumbles when it comes to Jimmy Buffett. It's not his ability to generate hundreds of millions of dollars that irks me; it's his insistence on doing so while coasting on a phony, lazy beach-bum facade that produces self-referential novelty songs and not much else.
Part of the problem is that I used to be a fan. There was a time when Buffett was sincere in his pursuits; 1974's A1A is a classic portrayal of a sand-blasted scruff dreaming of Makin' Music for Money, all the while Trying to Reason With the Hurricane Season. But Mr. Margaritaville — with his food chains, merch line and beery product placement on a flippin' football stadium — is the antithesis of his mission statement. It's like Bill Gates crooning the hobo songs of Boxcar Willie. It's smarmy, hollow.
Buffett's new album is called Buffet Hotel — and no, that's not a misspelling. The Buffet Hotel is a West African musical hot spot. In rather fascinating liner notes (which are by far the best part of the album), Buffett credits this peculiar creative zone for Malian musicians as a source of his own newfound inspiration. The songs you are about to hear, he writes in a warm hand, retell his wild adventures to the far reaches of the world.
Except they don't.
Instead, Buffet Hotel is basically stuffed with the same crass, hackneyed ingredients he's been ho-humly regurging for years.
There are a slew of condescending Parrothead shout-outs: Big Top ("Just like Santa, I come around once a year / Time to break out all of your party gear"), Summerzcool ("You need to go to Summerzcool / Get to the beach or at least in the pool") and Rhumba Man ("There's lots of guys in this crowd tonight / With a lot slicker steps than me / They do fins to the left and fins to the right / And everyone can see").
You also get groany punnery that doesn't go much farther than the title: Turn Up the Heat and Chill the Rose, A Lot to Drink About. And despite the fact that the 62-year-old Pascagoula, Miss., native still has a gentle troubadour's voice — he's a subtly seductive singer, Jack Johnson's fairy godfather — he resorts to annoying vocal shenanigans.
Buffett indulges his creative urges only a couple of times, and you can hear his band — with such stalwarts as Michael Utley, Mac McAnally and Robert Greenidge still in place — finally come alive. Beautiful Swimmers nostalgically ties together Marilyn Monroe and Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. And the title track is rousing, thanks to the interplay between Sonny Landreth's slide guitar and Malian musician Toumani Diabate's kora, a West African harp-lute.
Buffett could have made a risky, complex travelogue; he could have taken chances, forget the expectations. But in the name of appeasing a fan base that settles for silly surf tunes, Buffett phoned this one in — and not, alas, on that old-school Coconut Telegraph.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.