In a music scene dominated by pseudo-punk clones and interchangeable dance divas, the Kansas-born singer/songwriter, Freedy Johnston, has his own distinctive Midwestern drawl, doomed outlook and astringent melodic sense which sets him apart from pretty much everyone else out there. Imagine Mark Eitzel singing James Taylor tunes with Mark Sandman lyrics and you're still not halfway close to capturing the glory of Johnston. He's a hard guy to define - a mix of folk, pop and country styles that come together to make a seamless whole. From his first album, The Trouble Tree (1989), to the amazing This Perfect World(1994), he's staked out his own piece of pop territory, refining and developing it further with each successive release.
It's not much of a surprise that the new Freedy Johnston album, Never Home, is a quiet, unassuming work that deepens with each listening and gradually takes on its own kind of brilliance; it's hardly a disappointment. Danny Kortchmar's production doesn't quite match up to the hushed immediacy that Butch Vig brought to This Perfect World, but the album feels both looser and less intense than its predecessor. From the first song, the bouncy "On the Way Out" - a tune about casual, mindless shoplifting - to the last, the ethereal "Something's Out There," Never Home is probably Johnston's most accessible album, if not his best.
In the album's best song, the taut "If It's True," a man waits to find out if his girlfriend is pregnant or not, and agonizes over what to do if she is. "If it's true/We couldn't stay together/I'm broke and so are you.../If we can't take each other/Now someone else has to;" the song, like all the others on the album, is stripped of any romanticized sentiment. What the listener is left with is a perfect, crystalline image of an impossible situation, free of sentimental posturing and overblown melodrama.
This ability to create a sense of complete ordinariness is Johnston's greatest strength as a songwriter and a musician. While no song on Never Home matches the plain, disturbing intensity of This Perfect World's title song, both the edgy "Gone to See the Fire" and the poignant "Western Sky" come close. With his flat Midwestern accent lending a sense of rural authenticity to his material, Freedy Johnston is nothing if not believable.
Never Home also features a smaller, tighter band than that of This Perfect World. While that record featured a virtual who's-who of postpunk pop stars - Marshall Crenshaw, Vig, Kevin Salem and Marc Ribot - the lineup on the new album consists of Johnston, Kortchmar, former Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch and longtime collaborator Gram Maby on bass. The result is a less careful, more intuitive feel than previously, fitting for the album's spare, folk-rock arrangements.
It's the voice and the melodies, though, and the way they fit together, that put Johnston on another plane from everyone else. Twisting around melodies that sound familiar but just out of reach, Johnston's voice, at first plain and unassuming, gradually takes on more sinister characteristics as the meanings of the songs become more and more clear. Stories of abandonment, regret and hearbreak, the songs are delivered with a casualness that renders them insidious. The fact that there's not a trace of artifice anywhere on the album makes you wonder what kind of a guy Johnston really is.
Never Home feels, to some extent, like a calculated break for commercial success. Gone are the Appalachian-style folk ballads and full throttle rockers of brilliant Can You Fly (1991), as well as the more disturbing, brooding performances of This Perfect World. But, really, you can't blame Johnston. Being a critical darling without a hit is probably as frustrating as watching Hootie and the Blowfish make it big on fake Midwestern sincerity.
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 14; February 14, 1997
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