The cover art and publicity around Dr. John’s new album Locked Down hearken back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when, after a decade as a session musician (playing guitar first, switching to piano only after injuring his hand), Mac Rebennack on a lark became Dr John the Night Tripper, a voodoo mystic chronicling the strange things that go bump after dark. Those first Dr. John albums—Gris Gris (1968), Babylon (1969), Remedies (1970) and The Sun, Moon and Herbs (1971) – are strange masterpieces, and still sound strange today.
Listening to Locked Down, though, doesn’t necessarily take you back that far. Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, the album does offer a heady funk-soul mix, though one that feels more like a transaction consciously built to be an “event”, less like conjuring spirits or letting creative juices freely flow than those early albums did. Locked Down doesn’t feel as free as those. And sometimes – though he collaborated from the start on these songs with the young musicians he’s playing with – it feels like he’s being put in a particular place to play a particular part, with a particular end in mind.
The songs themselves are not that different, in sentiment or structure, from those on his fine recent albums – 2010’s Tribal, especially – but they’re wearing different clothes, ones reflecting the backgrounds of the other musicians involved as much as that of Rebennack. For example, it takes only until the second track for the album to have some of that Daptone Records retro-soul style about it. Whether that comes from bassist Nick Movshon (who’s played with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse and others), the horn arrangements from Leon Michels (El Michels Affair), the Black Keys presence or a combination of that and more, I can’t say entirely, but it’s clear that while this is a Dr. John album, it’s also something else.
When you read press claiming this is the best album Dr. John has done in years, or among the best in his career, be skeptical. Go back and listen to his previous albums. Listen to all of them, and see how this stacks up. Locked Down feels a little too mannered, or manipulative even, to be among his best. Still, that doesn’t mean this isn’t a great album. Dr. John is Dr. John. He’s a star, and is on fire at the center of this. Limiting his sentimental and didactic sides, and taking him out of his New Orleans comfort zone for a minute, the albums puts an emphasis on Dr. John as a funk and soul god, and I’m not about to argue that he isn’t one.
Locked Down shows off his swagger especially well, like on “Big Shot”, a cocky anthem that stands out, within the album and among his recent work. There are some vague but still potent conspiracy-theory/rebel lyrics about the government, in line with his other post-Katrina albums, and, within this dense musical stew, the paranoia and the urgency comes out. Mostly, though, the songs go for coolness above all else. And cool is something Dr. John pulls off with ease, carrying himself as hipper at age 71 than a borough’s worth of hipsters. He also always manages to sound both menacing and neighborly at the same time. The tenderness in his music is more absent on Locked Down than on most of his albums, at least until the album’s end, on the last two songs: “My Children, My Angels” and “God’s Sure Good”. Yet even “My Children, My Angels” isn’t as tender as the song seems to merit, as the band goes for a smoke-thick atmosphere that just about smothers the lyrics away.
Ultimately it is nice to hear a living legend treated like the still-vibrant artist that he is. Worse than this would have been the standard Grammy-baiting pedestal treatment, where guest artists are trotted out to bring coolness by association to a pre-retirement legend. At the same time, Locked Down, partly because of the publicity ambush, does feel like a trying-too-hard attempt to revitalize the career of a musician who, to some of us, already seemed vital. Then again, if this gets young people to go back through Dr. John’s catalogue and really listen to it, I’m all for it.