Arts

Maybe Bruce Hornsby isn’t who you think he is

Sarah Walor

Bruce Hornsby reserves the right to make you unhappy.

“I’ve got some aces up my sleeve that might really offend at some point, if and when I bring them out,” he says by way of defense, when a reporter attempts to compliment him by suggesting he couldn’t write an unattractive melody if he wanted to.

Alienating listeners is not his goal. But it’s a side effect he’s content to live with.

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“Nasty letters abound when I write that kind of music, because people don’t want to hear that,” he says of “The Blinding Light of Dreams,” a bi-tonal number from his new album on which he plays piano in the key of C with one hand and in F-sharp with the other.

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With results this good, the angry mail is worth it.

In the case of “Absolute Zero,” the album released this month, any nasty notes have been accompanied by love letters from dazzled critics.

Hornsby, 64, launches the tour in support of the new album at the Wilbur Theatre Thursday.

“I only have one story here,” the creatively restless musician says near the top of a phone interview from his home in Williamsburg, Va., cautioning that he’s already relayed the origin tale behind his stunning new work a few times. “I could make one up and say it all came to me in a bowling alley.”

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No, the songs on “Absolute Zero” did not come to Hornsby in a singular flash of inspiration. Most feature musical building blocks culled from a body of work going back 11 years: the more than 230 film cues he’s written for Spike Lee projects.

Then there are the literary influences. The lyrics are influenced by bits of prose by Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jack Kerouac that Hornsby copied from some of the more dog-eared volumes on his bookshelf. Even these influences follow crooked paths: “White Noise” takes its title from the DeLillo novel but its lyrics, it turns out, are based on Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously released novel “The Pale King.”

The album is also colored by prominent contributions from guests including Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and progressive new-music chamber ensemble yMusic. (“It’s like Uncle Bruce and my kids,” Hornsby jokes of his younger collaborators.)

The album is dissonant, tuneful, discomfiting, and in scattered moments, vaguely soothing. There are few big, pop choruses, but there’s stuff to hum along to. The knotty influence of new music (sometimes referred to as contemporary classical) is pronounced.

He insists this strange, beautiful work didn’t appear from out of nowhere: “If someone followed me for the past 10 years, they’ve seen the seeds of this.”

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But those who lost track of Hornsby’s doings not long after his string of hits (including “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain,” “The End of the Innocence” for Don Henley, “Jacob’s Ladder” for Huey Lewis) ran out in the late-1980s can be forgiven for getting a little confused.

‘I’ve got some aces up my sleeve that might really offend at some point, if and when I bring them out.’

Since those days he’s been a touring member of the Grateful Dead, released a trio album with notable jazzbos Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette and a bluegrass(ish) album with Ricky Skaggs, and, by the way, recorded all that film music for Lee.

But wherever Bruce Hornsby goes, there he is. He’ll fill a pop album with harmonic complexity, but imbues even his more challenging entries with a certain accessibility, rarely leaving dormant his gift for melody.

“I think he has found a way for his most ambitious leanings to co-exist with tunefulness and accessibility,” says longtime collaborator Tony Berg, credited as associate producer on the new album. “Sometimes I act as a foil, with the intention of helping focus what he’s doing in a way that maybe invites a lot of people to listen. He’s that rare guy who makes art and commerce co-exist.”

The rough and the smooth mingle on new tune “Echolocation.” It’s built on a film cue inspired by the mixed media, sculptural paintings Robert Rauschenberg called “combines.” There’s a chaotic bed of percussion (recorded from instruments he had lying around the house) that nods to Tom Waits’s junkyard aesthetic. Atop that is a plain-spoken song that could stand up to a group sing-along.

“I wanted to try my hand at writing a musical combine,” Hornsby explains, “so I thought I’d try to make a cue with all these found objects ringing away and entering and leaving — over which I wrote a dulcimer song, an old-time folky song.”

He calls “Echolocation” a “more-twisted version” of a Hornsby classic like “Mandolin Rain,” on which he played Appalachian dulcimer and accordion.

“It’s coming from the same place as say the first record, and many subsequent records when I wrote folky kinds of songs, but trying to take it to a new place,” Hornsby says.

Even if he’s not aiming directly for the pop charts these days, Hornsby isn’t one to disavow his more popularly adored work. He cites breakthrough hit “The Way It Is” — a song decrying racism that features two improvised piano solos and also happens to be wicked catchy — as a fitting launch for all that came after.

“That’s just not what you [usually] hear,” on the radio, he says. “That was sort of the template, and I’ve been doing different versions of that for years.”

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers

At the Wilbur Theatre, April 25 at 8 p.m. Tickets $45-$70, 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.com

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremyd
goodwin.com
. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremydgoodwin.