It wouldn’t be fair to call Alejandro Escovedo the grandfather of alternative country, in spite of his well-known designation by No Depression magazine as the 1990’s “Artist of the Decade”. He’s more like the scene’s awesome uncle who’s seen it all, and who has the stories to show for it. After making a name for himself performing with the Bay Area punk band the Nuns (who opened the final Sex Pistols show in 1978), Escovedo lay down the prototype for alt-country with his bands Rank and File and the True Believers in the 1980s. He then continued to define the genre with his solo work throughout the 1990s and has been releasing ever-stronger blues and punk-infused Americana all the while “alt-country” has become a more and more vague classifying term. Even as he has remained relatively unknown in the mainstream and, more seriously, even as he nearly died battling the abiding ravages of Hepatitis C, his creative work is prodigious, and the degree to which Escovedo is respected in the business cannot be overstated.
Real Animal is Escovedo’s tenth recording, and it’s being talked up as his career album. To some degree that designation is almost indisputable—Real Animal may be arguably his best album (to my mind coming right in line with his truly stellar 2001 recording A Man Under the Influence and 2006’s John Cale-produced The Boxing Mirror), and it is to date both his most straightforwardly autobiographical and the strongest synthesis of Escovedo’s many disparate musical impulses. If anything, Escovedo’s desert twang is the least prominent musical direction featured on this album, subordinated to the volume and direct rhythms of his punk loves, which mark about half the album, and the carefully orchestrated melodies that fill the chamber pop of the other half. Escovedo enlisted Chuck Prophet to co-write the album, and it is produced by Tony Visconti, known for his work with David Bowie, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy, and the punk and glam sensibilities Escovedo cultivates with his two collaborators are shot through the veins of the album like the “creature in [his] blood” of which Escovedo sings.
Throughout Real Animal, a pattern emerges: Escovedo alternates his gritty punk and rock shouts with longing, string-filled ballads, and the pairs complement and reinforce one another. The harder-edged songs are also the most explicitly autobiographical and filled with precise scene-setting from his past and the names of the acquaintances and friends. The quieter songs are more oblique; their invocations of the feelings of Escovedo’s times past induce goosebumps like a visit from one of Dickens’ Christmas ghosts. Each song feels like a plot-filled chapter or impressionistic poem coming out of the long narrative of Escovedo’s life.
The powerful dualities of the album are most potent on a pair of songs early in the album, “Chelsea” and “Sister Lost Soul”. “Chelsea” lengthens the list of great songs written about New York’s Hotel Chelsea, where Escovedo lived for a time when the Nuns relocated from San Francisco to New York in 1978. “We came to live inside the myth of everything we’d heard”, Escovedo sings over menacing strings and pulse-quickening drum and bass lines. The song doesn’t try to shatter the myth of the place where the chaotic energy of the romanticized rock and roll dream turned bewilderingly dark and too real. The chorus of the song devolves into a yelled call-and-answer in which a choir of voices gainsays Escovedo’s own contradictory feelings about the scene: “It makes no sense (It makes perfect sense!) / It makes perfect sense (It makes no sense!)”. The tune pounds into the future as Escovedo concludes, “We all moved out / And we all moved on”, which sounds defiant and almost flippant, until the wall-of-sound opening chords and bells of “Sister Lost Soul” segue into a mournful postscript: “Nobody left unbroken”.
Easily one of the loveliest and most wrenching songs of the year, “Sister Lost Soul” is a lonesome elegy for all of the wanderers who drift off and away, but whose spectral presence is still felt constantly by the singer. “You’re not the first or last I’ve lied to / I’m lying to myself right now, you’re still here”, he notes, and when he calls out for his sister and brother lost souls—“I need you”—the swelling reach in his voice on the note of need reminds the listener of both the inevitability of loss and the fundamental impulse to hang on. Back to back, the two songs create their own richly detailed but ephemeral world: the “poets on their barstools…addicted to the pain” of the first song become the spectral presences lingering in the shadows of neon lights evoked in the second.
The musical pairings continue as the album progresses. The fast bluesy guitar ramble and manic strings of “Smoke” locate themselves concretely in the rock clubs where Escovedo and his friends spent so much time (“Come on baby come on / Let’s do the stroll / Come on take my hat / I’ll teach you how to roll”) while simultaneously gossiping about what became of those friends. That song leads into “Sensitive Boys”, an homage to the high hopes of wide-eyed young troubadours infused with a ‘70s R&B tempo and chorus and sax and strings that hang in the air like the cigarette smoke curling the poster edges in the clubs Escovedo describes. The noir of “Golden Bear”, in which Escovedo muses on his illness and asks “why me?” in a tone that is plaintive but never self-pitying, transitions to the recalcitrant pulse of “Nun’s Song’s” never-look-back tribute to his first band. The carnal growl of “Real as an Animal” (Escovedo’s tribute to Iggy Pop) contrasts with the civilized classical string section of “Hollywood Hills”, but both are concerned primarily with the authenticity of instincts and the reality beneath a dream.
Though the songs’ power is amplified by their relationships with each other, all of the songs are strong enough to stand on their own. Late in the album, the lilting waltz of “Swallows of San Juan” is singularly perfect. Escovedo describes the annual return of enormous flocks of swallows to nest at San Juan Capistrano, and he uses the swallows, a long-lived literary metaphor of return, to evoke both the nostalgia for his childhood and his own desire to return to some basic universal musical source. Likewise, as far back as Homer, the “singing of the bow” has been likened to a swallow’s call, and here the violin and cello duet together and then float away, and as the song ends, the strings dive and tumble down the scales and just as quickly soar up again with the light touch of birds in flight. “I’m gonna crawl up on the shore / Roll in the mud and the hay”, Escovedo sings, “and like the swallows of San Juan / I’m gonna get back / Get back some day”, and with this song, you kind of believe that Escovedo has found the source spring of inspiration he’s looking for.
If there’s one theme that brings the album together, it’s expressed most succinctly on album closer “Slow Down”:
Slow down, slow down
It’s moving much too fast
To live in this moment
Gotta let go of the past.
Escovedo seems to be fighting time throughout, trying to live simultaneously among his ghosts while relishing the present moment, which always passes as quickly as it came. “We still got time / But never quite as much as we need”, he notes, only half-somberly, and the listener knows that while Escovedo probably will never has much time as he could assuredly fill, one is confident that he still has quite a bit more. It’s not an original thought among critics to lament that Escovedo’s music has yet to be brought to as wide an audience as it deserves, but Real Animal only reinforces that notion. Music this rich and evocative should be heard by everyone, and one can only hope that more and more people will hear as Escovedo continues to write his own story.