The True False Identity jolts to a start with three percussionists smacking out voodoo rhythms on their snare rims. Then a jagged, just-out-of-tune electric guitar. Then an upright bass and a reverbed organ. From here, it only gets more untidy. Jars of nails shudder. Synthesized samples phase in and out.
It's an opening T-Bone Burnett has been working toward for 30 years.
"You have to be fearless and willing to go in any direction," he says of his approach to his first album since 1992's The Criminal Under My Own Hat. "You have to be able to take on the thing that's here and the thing that's coming."
He pauses. "Sorry, am I being too Zen for you?"
Burnett's big into Zen, as well as Zen poets like Gary Snyder. And Burnett uses his lyrical influence to tell a few absurdist tales. He insists The Criminal is a comedy record-but his best verses are criticisms of religious and political zealots. "If we were to pass an 11th commandment/In 20 years people would be shocked to learn/That there had once been only 10/And wouldn't care if there had been," he sings on "Every Time I Feel the Shift."
"For the last 15 years, I didn't feel like saying anything," he says. "At this point, I sense that there's going to be a new explosion of art and science and religion.... I want to be a part of that explosion."
During the first 20 years of his career, Burnett had lots to say, and he said it over seven solo releases. But when he began producing other artists in the '80s, his solo career fizzled while the artists he worked with blew up. He produced freshmen releases like Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive?, BoDeans' Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, Counting Crows' August and Everything After and The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse-debuts most of these bands never topped.
He also oversaw the recording of Elvis Costello's best non-'70s work and orchestrated Roy Orbison's comeback. Then he moved on to Hollywood, where he produced some of its best soundtracks, including The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain.
But as Burnett aged, his production became safer. And he grew bored. He wanted to experiment again-experiment in a way he knew he couldn't as a mainstream producer.
"For a long time, I've put a lot of audio annoyances back behind those clean records," he says. "Even if I'm producing one guy and a guitar, there are usually five or 10 tracks of noise behind it that you can barely hear, which has the same effect as needles bouncing on vinyl scratches or tape hiss. All of the stuff I had in the background I've finally brought to the foreground with this new record."
But Burnett's done more than just add some noise. He's created an album that has three drummers on every track-drummers who don't hold down the beat, but rumble independently. It also led him to Marc Ribot, whose mercurial guitar became the bizarro counterpoint to Burnett's spoken-word vocals. Add to that all the unidentifiable noises coming from samples, loops and laptops. It's fun and loose and surprisingly aggressive."I'm attacking this music as hard as I can because it's incredibly rewarding, and it's the happiest I've been," he says. "After this tour, I'm going to try and get back in the studio as soon as possible. There's a new cultural revolution going on, and I want to be part of it."
T-Bone Burnett plays with Jakob Dylan at House of Blues on June 19. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $24. 619-299-BLUE.