We gave it a B-
Bruce Hornsby has been famous for two things: serious lyrics and an evocative musical style blended from Southern rock and New Age-y jazz, the latter heard most clearly in Hornsby’s extensive piano solos. On this album, A Night on the Town, his third, his lyrics are still serious. The most intense cut, ”Fire on the Cross,” looks at the horror of the Ku Klux Klan. Other songs examine less dramatic rigidities of Southern small-town life, among them (in the album’s title song) the unwritten tradition that requires men out for a night on the town to get drunk and fight.
The music, though, rocks harder than it used to. That’s not entirely a surprise; Hornsby has been known to play more assertive rock in his concerts, and now he brings the rougher sound of those stage performances to the recording studio. The extra urgency intensifies the warmest, most satisfying song on the album, ”Across the River,” which tells the story of a woman, damned as ”wild” by local gossips, who left town and then came crawling back. With a gospel-like kick, Hornsby’s music brings alive the hope that she’ll cross the river again and this time find what she’s looking for.
The only touch of Hornsby’s previous style comes in his trademark piano solos, which are shorter than they used to be. They also now sound too much alike. Hornsby might be singing about love or anger; when his piano checks in, the emotion disappears, and the song could just as well be about knitting.
But then the songs themselves tend to sound too much alike, and Hornsby sings them all in nearly the same way. He’s an emotional singer, but his voice isn’t distinctive, and his feeling rarely seems to vary. The album’s last track, ”These Arms of Mine,” brings welcome relief simply because it’s in waltz time. Up to then, what mostly stands out is a crew of distinctive guests. Folksinger Shawn Colvin offers tangy background vocals; country hipster Bela Fleck weighs in with his insistent banjo; Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead plays bright solos on guitar.
The star among the guests — and maybe the star of the entire album — is jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who in one brief burst of notes during ”Fire on the Cross” touches more nerves than Hornsby can in all 11 songs. No doubt Shorter didn’t mean to show up his host. But he can’t help it; he’s one of the most probing musicians alive. It’s not his fault if he dramatizes the difference between an A+ artist and a capable rock & roller who, impassioned as he is, still can’t hold a listener’s attention all the way through his album.