For a working artist, success can be a curse as well as a blessing. Every time Paul McCartney steps into the recording studio, he has the Mount Rushmore-sized spectre of The Beatles looking over his shoulder. And every time Bob Dylan releases an album, he knows that critics from every magazine, newspaper, and website on the planet are going to remind him his new work can’t hold a candle to Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks.
John Doe has never suffered that level of success or scrutiny, but as the co-founder of X, he was perhaps the most visible and gifted singer-songwriter of L.A.’s incendiary punk rock scene in the early 1980s. On songs like “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and “We’re Desperate”, Doe and partner Exene Cervenka defined a generation of disillusioned, discontented youth who didn’t fit into Ronald Reagan’s — or their parents’ — vision of a clean cut, conservative America.
Doe’s career since the band’s 1987 breakup has, in some ways, been a model second act for a maturing artist. Like his sometime bandmate Dave Alvin (best known as a Blaster, but also a member of X for one album and a co-founder with Doe and Cervenka of the folkie side project the Knitters), Doe relaxed the intensity of his sonic assault but sharpened his lyrical gaze. His debut solo album, 1990’s Meet John Doe, and his 2002 work, Dim Stars, Bright Sky, are both low-key gems of country-flavored rock that explore the lives of the rebellious characters who peopled X’s songs after the realization that their rebellion was not only without a cause but also without any real effect.
Given this context, Doe’s new album, Keeper, is a thematic departure from his past work. For the first time, Doe and the majority of his characters are grappling with middle age and also — gulp — a little bit of contentment in their lives. Opening track “Don’t Forget How Much I Love” is upbeat both in terms of its tempo and its sentiment. But aside from Doe’s familiar, careworn voice, there’s not much to distinguish it from similar material by Tom Petty or Bob Seger.
The next track, “Never Enough,” has the feel of an old X track, minus the emotional edge. Railing against the hoarder’s impulse, Doe has a hard time raising enough indignation to justify the effort: “You’ve got a closet full of junk / And a room full of junk / And a house full of junk / But it’s never enough!” Well, okay John, where are you going with this? “We’ve got our money on our minds / We’ve got our minds on our money / We’ve got our hands in each other’s pockets / But it’s never enough!” True enough, and I like the dueling saxophone and guitar solos—and Jill Sobule’s counter-vocal, which is more musical and less ironic than Exene’s; but “The Once Over Twice” or “The New World” or “Let’s Get Mad” (from Meet John Doe) it ain’t.
And so it goes. Everything sounds good, but nothing stands out. It’s an album of high-grade filler without any of the exceptional anchor tracks that might make me want to rush to listen to it again. The slow crawl “Moonbeam” has a nice, slinky feel to it — the piano reminds me of the Flamingos’ version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” — but the song itself doesn’t rise above the standard twelve-bar blues. The lazy pedal steel on “Sweetheart” and the measured slide guitar on “Handsome Devil” are great touches, but neither character study feels fully fleshed out. Even ballads like “Little Tiger” and “Lucky Penny”, which are sweet and bittersweet, respectively, don’t quite draw tears or blood. Doe’s greatest gift may be his high lonesome, hangdog vocals, but they never reach full altitude here; the longing feel temporary, the hurts mendable.
The next to last track, “Cottage in the Dale”, is my favorite, an ironic ode to the past that focuses on the smallest details of memory and pleasure. “So much has changed in this 21st century”, he laments nostalgically, ultimately finding comfort in “our hammock in the shade of the tree / In our cottage in the dale”. It would have been the perfect place to end this imperfect album, but Doe can’t resist an encore: “Painting the Town Blue”, another X-style rave-up that tries to raise the ire his old band did so well. It’s not bad, but it’s not X.
Let me be clear: I take no pleasure in damning this record with faint praise. I like John Doe and everything he stands for. I wanted his new album to be a masterpiece that would make me shout huzzahs from a billboard above the Sunset Strip. But Keeper isn’t that album. The next time I want to hear Doe’s jagged edged anger and soul deep longing, I’ll be digging out my old copy of See How We Are or Meet John Doe. Those albums are genuine keepers. This one’s a placeholder ‘til the real thing comes along.