This Boston music legend’s metamorphosis from party animal to monster songwriter became complete with his previous solo album, 2002’s Sleepless, a superbly crafted group of songs plucked from the J. Geils Band frontman’s interesting life among the artistic elite and the populace of the demi-monde. Although his latest is less personal, it has a similarly broad emotional scope and a warm sonic palette far from the house-rocking R&B that’s the foundation of his four-decade career.
Just released as a single on iTunes, “Tragedy” is a duet with Nashville bad girl Shelby Lynne, a he-said/she-said about the possible end of a romance that embraces country, blues, rock, and R&B. The least likely pairing is “It’s Too Late for Me,” where Wolf swaps lines with country giant Merle Haggard; both find the warmest registers of their voices for this tear-in-my-beer weeper with an arrangement that’s part Floyd Kramer and part Les Paul.
Alt-country heroine Neko Case sings with Wolf in “The Green Fields of Summer,” one of the few unbridled love songs here, her pristine timbre sailing over Celtic fiddle. Wolf has always made the most of his own narrow vocal range with the old-school power and elegance of his phrasing. And he’s never sung better, whether negotiating the rocking curves of “I Don’t Wanna Know” or spitting arrows in the blues-modeled “Thick As Thieves.” He sounds especially good when his voice is almost naked in the mix, as on “Then It Leaves Us All Behind” and the Stonesy “Don’t Try To Change Her” — dry and up front and swelling with vulnerability. The playing throughout is impeccable, even when it replicates the carefully orchestrated late-era Stax strings-and-soul vibe for “Overnight Lows” or tackles New Orleans’s Meters in “Everything I Do (Gonna Be Funky).” Since Wolf constantly trolls the Boston clubs for talent, it’s no surprise his core outfit includes regional A-listers guitarist Kevin Barry, bassist Marty Ballou, and drummer Marty Richards.