If you think Robbie Fulks is just the court jester of alt-country, think again. There's nary a funny song on Couples In Trouble, as the title implies. In fact, thematically it's a rather dour affair. But that hardly prevents it from being one of the most inspired and satisfying American music records in recent memory.

It always seemed like Fulks had a work like this in him. But his musical japing, pointed and witty as it was, tended to overshadow the fact that Fulks is an incredibly facile guitarist, with a firm command of musical forms and a lyrical intellectualism as sharp as a freshly stropped razor. Rather than continue as a joke-bridled trick pony, he has now proved himself an artistic stallion with the heart to win the ultimate race.

This is music that transcends trends, genres, even time itself. That's because Couples In Trouble is something of a masterpiece, an accomplishment that one hopes won't be obscured by its release on Fulks's own label. On the 12-song set, he sheds any strictures of the deathly tired alternative country movement (of which, sadly, there are many) and elevates himself to a musical and lyrical pantheon occupied by rare, genuine contemporary artists such as Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson.

Sure, country is one of the spices used in this zesty and often dark stew. In fact, songs like "In Bristol Town One Bright Day" and "Banks of the Marianne" sound like they could have flowered in the Cumberland Mountains from the seeds of weathered folk tales from the Celtic Fringe. Yet on "I've Got to Tell Myself the Truth," Fulks also displays a wide-ranging pop sophistication that approaches the best work of a modern master like Paul Simon.

The songs here read like short stories, drenched in vivid imagery, splashed with allusions and festooned with sparkling metaphors. The underlying theme is the sadness found in a romantic heart in a world of unjust love affairs. But in every song, Fulks dresses his characters in different clothes and plays out the story in a range of territories.

Simply put, Couples In Trouble is a rara avis, one of those timeless recordings whose resonance should only amplify with perspective. No laughs here, I'm afraid, yet the revelatory lyrical insights and profound musical pleasures should provide a balm for anyone who has ever felt that true love is the ultimate Zen koan.

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Rob Patterson