So you're already wearing the weighty mantle of "Legendary Roots-Punk Pioneer" and your last solo album drew breathless raves from every corner of the known universe: A bracing, mid-career second wind! An unqualified triumph!! His best ever!!! And now it's time to act like nothing happened and hunker down to make another quality record. No pressure there, right? Sheee-it.
Evidently, if you're John Doe, pressure is a very potent motivator. On A Year in the Wilderness, his second release for Yep Roc, he ups the ante yet again with an incendiary blend of turbulence and raw beauty that recalls his landmark sonic excursions with X and the Knitters without ever tracing exactly the same path. Longtime cohorts Dave Way (coproducer), Dave Carpenter (bass), Jamie Muhoberac (keyboards), Greg Leisz (pedal steel), and Dave Alvin (guitar) help to keep the front man harnessed to the wheel.
Standout cuts such as "Hotel Ghost" and "Lean Out Yr Window" evoke vintage X with a barely contained fury that Doe has rarely unleashed on his solo projects. "Darling Underdog" (with a lyric co-authored by Exene Cervenka), "A Little More Time," and "The Meanest Man in the World" visit folk and hard country territory a la the Knitters and make themselves right at home.
Veering down the back roads, "Big Moon" echoes the bluesy, Doors-at-Chess-Records feel that saturated Doe's superb 2005 Yep Roc debut, Forever Hasn't Happened Yet. And there's simply no handy reference point in Doe's catalog for "There's a Hole," a crash 'n' bang pop mutation that sounds like it should be a weird, one-hit wonder band's legacy from the 1960s heyday of Top 40 radio.
Although a fine player and a songwriter of uncommon poetic invention, Doe's ace in the hole has always been his voice, a conventionally sweet and brilliant instrument that also manages to convey dark moods and menace with jarring clarity. It's an asset he puts to full use on Wilderness. Check out the first single, "The Golden State," an anthemic melodic rocker sung in tandem with Canadian upstart Kathleen Edwards, and witness a man in total command at points all across the emotional spectrum.
It's a scary and beautiful thing.
• Mike Thomas
dig this (don't distrust the look, just turn it up)
[look for an interview with John Doe in our next issue]