Lambchop have made a number of outstanding albums as they've evolved from "Nashville's most f--ked-up country band" to a singular chamber pop ensemble during a career that lasted nearly two decades, but one of their finest works is not really a Lambchop album at all. Vic Chesnutt recruited Lambchop to serve as his backing band on the 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette, and the results were a marvelous fusion of the group's broad but emotionally intimate approach and Chesnutt's witty, skewed, and perceptive gifts as a songwriter. Chesnutt and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner seemed like kindred spirits, fellow Southerners who married oblique yet telling poetry to melodies that were strong yet fluidly graceful, and it should surprise no one that Wagner was hit hard by Chesnutt's death in late 2009. Lambchop's first studio project since Chesnutt's passing, 2012's Mr. M, is dedicated to Wagner's friend and collaborator, and though the songs don't deal explicitly with Chesnutt, there's a sense of sorrow in these songs that's deeper than what we've come to expect from Lambchop, infused with an air of reflection and regret that's impossible to miss. As usual, Wagner's lyrics are blankly poetic and don't much concern themselves with linear storytelling, but his gently abstract sketches of people coming to terms with loss and unkind fate make themselves felt even when they're not literally understood, and the lines "Friends make you sensitive/Loss makes us idiots/Fear makes us critical/Knowledge is difficult" from the song "Mr. Met" sums up the tone and the themes of this album remarkably well. But if Mr. M is music informed by tragedy, the sense of gravity makes this some of the most beautiful and powerful music Lambchop have created to date. Wagner's gorgeous, artful melodies give the musicians plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their remarkable command of dynamics and interpersonal interaction, and most of the songs have been gussied up with fine, tasteful string arrangements that weave their way in and out of the band's performances rather than simply being draped over the top. Mr. M is an album that concerns itself with loss, but the beauty and gentle force of these songs speak to the joys and responsibilities of being alive, and the album is more than simply a fitting tribute to a fallen comrade, it's one of the most affecting works to date from a brilliant, one-of-a-kind band.