John Doe is on a mission, albeit an undefined one. He tells us as much in “Magic”, a song that comes two thirds of the way through his recent solo release, Dim Stars, Bright Sky. He’s searching for magic, for soul, and for self—for the sense of freedom felt only by a man who is on his own journey, who is the master of his own will. “Dim stars, bright sky / A lot like my life,” he muses, the weathered timbre of his vocals spicing the lyrics with a believable flavor, the jaunty jangle of guitar and piano filling out the taste as they go. “There’s magic in this state,” Doe continues. “I can’t wait.”
Apparently, when it comes to doing his own thing, John has never been much of a waiter. During a hiatus in 1990 from the legendary punk band X (in which he played bass), John recorded his first solo album, Meet John Doe. It was there that he crystallized the country and roots rock influences that have played an important role in his solo material ever since. Kissingsohard and Freedom Is . . . followed in 1995 and 2000, respectively, on which John experimented and realized his post-X musical persona.
Teaming up with notables such as Aimee Mann, Juliana Hatfield, and Jakob Dylan, Doe’s Dim Stars, Bright Sky is an earnest collection of tempered observation, free from youthful romantic free-for-all but not without authentic feeling. It is also what Doe has called his first “acoustic” release, although some electric influences do rear their heads every now and again. But beyond how “loud” or “quiet” Dim Stars may be, above all it showcases Doe’s deftness as a storyteller, one confident in charging forward and carrying on no matter what life might hand him. (His current spring tour behind the album is a strong case in point).
Poignantly beginning the collection is “7 Holes”, possibly the strongest song on the entire record. Recounting the experience of unrequited emotion, the match between bittersweet guitar, organ, and mandolin and Doe’s unadorned vocal style make even the crudest of observations impossibly beautiful. “I never did drink like you / But I held back your hair like a girlfriend would do,” Doe confesses. The song waxes and wanes gently in volume, and maintains its ease even as the guitar and mandolin work grow more intricate as it progresses. The song ends not on a reprise of its chorus, but on a verse which recounts the anticlimactic resignation that comes from circumstances beyond one’s control. “I brought you home too late / Stayed in the car while you walked to the door.” What else could he do?
Over next four tracks, Doe builds pace and muscle, commanding tougher and more rock influenced numbers. “Closet of Dreams” follows, a mid-paced country rock that clanks with pedal steel and lilts with the airy vocals of Juliana Hatfield. After the emphatic cadence of “Forever For You” comes another remarkably strong track, “This Far”. Again contemplating distance and proximity, travels and returns, Doe unfurls a narrative of lost love. This time, his accompaniment is a dusty, rootsy pop, keyed up with electric guitars and the strong, savory harmonies of Aimee Mann.
By “Faraway (From The North County), Doe returns once again to the quiet, showing off his acoustic guitar strumming and rugged yet sweet tenor. The remainder of the album, beyond the rolling “Backroom” stays mostly slow. “Employee of the Month”, a contemplative, sober number and the soulful “Always” form the official culmination of the disc, followed by a brief, untitled hidden acoustic track.
Given the interest inspired by Wilco et. al in Americana rock, Dim Stars, Bright Sky could potentially make the rounds to a whole new demographic of listeners. It’s refreshing to see a punk icon mature with dignity and grace, trying to neither recant or relive the past, but simply revel in what’s now. Whatever it may be.