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One Burrito, Por Favor
on February 22, 2017
Listening to “Gilded Palace of Sin” is like watching a friend with impeccable taste put on a gaudy rhinestone-encrusted cowboy suit. You wonder: Is this a joke? How seriously are they taking this? How seriously do I take it? Even the title can be taken two ways; for those unfamiliar with Gram Parsons’ career and the cultural countercurrents of late-60s America, it sounds like an earnest Bible-belt description of a house of iniquity; for those in the know, it’s a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the same.
The key, then, is to withhold all judgments about Christian lyrics and country twang—or, if you already love those things, to withhold judgment of people who make fun of Christian lyrics and country twang—and enjoy the dazzling spectacle.
The starting tune, “Devil in Disguise,” is decent; I’m not a fan of twangy country, so I’m just OK with it, but it is just about as good as twangy country gets. “Sin City” is where the album really takes off; it’s a beautiful simple tune with ornate melancholy flourishes, and the lyrics are fantastic, cryptically providing odd imagery one moment, directly foreboding about divine vengeance the next. “Do Right Woman” is another absolutely lovely song, with elegant guitars and aching vocals; it’s a straightforward song that could fit in anywhere about how “if you want a do-right-all-day-woman, you gotta be a do-right-all-night-man.”
But Gram Parsons is never one to judge the sinner—or if he is, it’s with the understanding that he’s sinned every sin, too. (At least, all the fun ones.) He’s certainly the most eloquent chronicler of adultery out there; only Jackson Browne comes close. And “Dark End Of The Street” nails it perfectly, all the desire and passion and shame, with a man singing to his lover about “living in darkness to hide our wrongs,” and worrying still that “we’re going to pay for the love that we stole.”
Lest anyone think he just mindlessly buys into society’s conventions, he segues from this into the country-tonk draft-dodging ditty “My Uncle;” lest anyone think he’s a pure rebellious hippie, he goes from that to the straightforward (and lovely) ride-or-die Christian tune “Wheels.” All the back-and-forth makes for a compelling listen; you don’t know if it’s all sincere, or you know it’s sincere one moment and mocking the next, or even doing both at the same time, burying meaty sincerity with a thin layer of melted cheesiness. (“Hot Burrito #1” might have been regarded as one of the greatest love songs of the latter half of the 20th century, if it wasn’t covered up with a name more appropriate for a Taco Bell receipt than a track listing.)
So "Gilded Palace of Sin" is an amazing album, messy and delicious, rich and filling, chock full of drug deals and politics and Jesus, cynicism about capitalism and the war machine, and earnestness about love and degradation. (I don’t like the fact that it’s force-packaged with “Burrito Deluxe,” so I don’t even really want to talk about the second album included in this 2-for-1 purchase; it’s all right, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do without Parsons’ take on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” but I always take a breather after “Hippie Boy.” It’s no fun eating two burritos in one sitting.) Less is more, and on the strength of the first album alone, this is a five-star purchase, as glittering and beautiful and fake and real as all the rhinestones in Nashville.