With Bruce Hornsby you’re either willing to get on the bus and allow the singer/songwriter/piano virtuoso to drive you wherever his latest creative whim takes him, or you stand by on the side of the road and wonder why the one-time commercial pop star just refuses to play nice. Me, I’d rather take the chance for possible adventure. The results aren’t always a complete success (2004’s Halycon Days) but it’s much more interesting than being served the umpteenth variation of “The Way It Is.” Two years ago he went bluegrass with Ricky Skaggs on that duo’s self-titled album and put out a jazz record, Camp Meeting, with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette. After that doubleshot of releases, Hornsby returns to his hybrid of pop/R&B/jazz on Levitate. Made and credited with his touring band, the Noisemakers, it contains the sweeping atmospheric force heard on much of his work. Throughout the 12 songs his arrangements and tone choices evoke his Southern heritage. Running through the music are echoes of the first settlers landing in the New World on through slavery, Civil War, reconciliation, Civil Rights, and his state of Virginia turning blue in order to elect the first multi-racial president of the United States of America.
Of course, Hornsby still offers a host of surprises. The opening track, “The Black Rats of London,” opens with the pounding of drums and the pianist choosing an accordion flourish rather than the 88 keys to make his musical point on what is essentially a sea shanty. The man who has made strangers wistful for a time they can only imagine (“Mandolin Rain” or “The End of Innocence”) must have read Guns, Germs and Steel prior to waxing lyrical about vermin and diseases becoming an integral part of our history. It isn’t until “Cyclone” that the familiar strains of his piano lead the way. With lyrics by Robert Hunter – who has been busy lately to the benefit of listeners everywhere – the song brings together recurring objects and themes from his work but finds new ways of dealing with the fading of youth and the desire to bring about the old magic despite the passage of time. “Continental Drift” brings about a stronger sense of melancholy since its guitar solo was recorded by Hornsby’s nephew, R.S., shortly before he died in an auto accident. His lines have the pace and fluidness recognizable in Steve Kimock. “Paperboy” knocks away the temporary doldrums, as the upbeat ditty details the life of a serial killer cannibal while “Simple Prayer” presents a list of characters’ selfish wishes to the Supreme Being. Like the track about rats, few people other than Hornsby can get away with such tunes without it becoming morbid. And that’s the point. Constantly playing with his musical brand, which includes dark humor, he touches on hip-hop via drum machines and, on “Space is the Place,” features a rap by sons Russell and Keith. Hornsby, along with the Noisemakers, has carved out a territory that makes most anything suitable, as long as the material supports it. On Levitate it does.