There is always such intimidation when it comes to exploring cult figures. In a time where the more obscure the bootleg, the more unique the listener, trying to discover a new niche, especially one already exhaustively explored by a small fanbase, certainly can feel weighty. Lee Hazlewood is the epitome of a cult figure. A sprawling career with little public recognition in his lifetime, Lee’s work has only gained recognition with time, characterizing him as a lone cowboy, a psychedelic pioneer, a conservative recluse that doesn’t care what you think. His eccentric behavior hit a high when he left the American music scene behind to form his own label in Sweden during the 1970’s. There he made uncompromising albums such as Cowboy in Sweden before giving in and retiring, leaving behind a body of work we’ve been reevaluating ever since. Last week for the first time this latter-day material was remastered and released. The Lhi Years: Singles, Nudes and Backsides (1968-1971) is 17 tracks of Lee unhinged, bringing together highlights of his most uninhibited work. I’ve had the album about a week, and after listening to it repeatedly, mostly alone in my car, it finally occurred to me—I’m part of a cult.
Most people know Lee from his works with Nancy Sinatra. Some Velvet Morning and These Boots are Made for Walking are excellent examples of how Lee could balance the grave with the kook, making his string sections only as dramatic as his baritone voice would let them. On The Lhi Years, those elements are still there, but it’s a far more personal affair. Some of the tracks do have the swelling instrumentation, but others, such as Monday Morning, are simple acoustic numbers with introductions by Lee that are tragic, but can’t help but be defined now as camp. Perhaps it is this juxtaposition that is the foundation of his music, and the pull of his newfound cult—it’s not a very serious affair, just because it’s so damn serious. Like all musical nooks and crannies us hipsters want to take shelter in, some will fit and some will not. I hesitated writing about Lee because I imagined most readers wouldn’t fit. But you just might and The Lhi Years is one great way to get in.