John Doe is still traveling down that archetypal American highway: pavement neglected and compromised; yellow dotted line faded and cracked from rain and wheels; a surge of desolation cutting through heartland crops and urban sprawls. As a founding member of X, Doe reported on Los Angeles’ merging with that highway—not the multiple intersecting arteries of the city’s freeway system, but more its reflection of America’s dark-hearted enigma. Doe’s solo career has more blatantly incorporated the rootsy genre hallmarks associated with this idea; in other words, he inhabits that same headlight-illuminated highway, only the selected stretches of late have been rurally patched.
Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet, Doe’s latest release and first for Yep Roc, continues to gravel his voice and muck up his feet, a homebrewed distillation of old scratchy blues, country-folk, and noir, heavily annotated in mortality—one could say that Doe is priming himself for a watershed Time out of Mind-caliber record any day now. Like 2002’s Dim Stars, Bright Sky, Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet boasts a number of formidable guests (Dave Alvin, Grant-Lee Phillips, Neko Case, Kristin Hersh, Doe’s daughter Veronica Jane, to name a few), but none usurp Doe’s weathered presence. Doe brings a multi-experienced persona to the record’s songs, that of the street poet turned front porch philosopher or the city-singed perspective’s emulation of a roots icon, and walks through heartbreak, resuscitated memories, and the world’s fatal spin with the air of a man completely prepared.
Doe has alluded to writing Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in mind; if the final product isn’t exactly an authentic blues record, it certainly echoes those specific inspirations. “The Losing Kind” opens the record and effectively sets its tone: instruments made to sound, occasionally, like antiquated junk; narration furrowed but never alarmed; an emphasis on simplicity above all else. “Heartless” is a slab of roadhouse blues, the guitars like snapping turtles and lyrics straightforward yet clever (“Someone broke your heart when they dropped it on the ground”). “Worried Brow” and “There’s a Black Horse” are dust-settling blues ballads and Doe’s most obvious attempts to harness the vibe of the blues godfathers—they’re also a few of the album’s weakest tracks, for they feel like they’re aspiring to something rather than just being something.
Doe’s vocals have always been the perfect compliment to female harmonies, and for that reason, the tracks featuring female guests prove to be the record’s most memorable. (Perhaps this observation has become truth simply because his musical career began by calling-and-responding with Exene Cervenka in X, and in a way we expect to hear Doe’s crystallized honey voice sharing the mic with the opposite sex.) On “Hwy 5” (co-written with Cervenka), Neko Case belts out the duet vocals like she always does—strenuously and passionately—matching Doe’s tenacity each step of the way. The song has two pre-choruses before the real deal (“Take me away”); it builds tension upon tension, the programmed drum track feeling more and more unstable with each emotional elevation. Doe’s daughter Veronica Jane adds a high-pitched sweetness to the dirt-caked guitars in the escape anthem “Mama Don’t”; and Cindy Lee Berryhill’s contributions, while more relegated to the background, make songs like “Your Parade” emotionally resonant (“You’re positively negative…I’m just a float in your parade”).
It’s Kristin Hersh, however, who makes the strongest impression with her volatile harmony in “Ready”, the album’s best track. Her unrestrained and untempered accompaniment, full of life and rage and the conscience-driven desire to sing about them, is wildly suggestive of the Cervenka/Doe paradigm. (It may even transcend it—seriously, Doe and Hersh should start a band.) Although it’s led by acoustic guitars, “Ready” bursts from the barn doors with a fury, documenting addiction and destruction from a mature realist’s point of view: “Johnny’s dead and I know why / Stuck a needle in his eye / Johnny’s dead, but I couldn’t cry / ‘Cause Johnny always seemed ready”. It’s here that Doe stands tallest on the shoulder of that American highway, Hersh at his side, thumbing rides from passing Mississippians and Los Angelinos alike, prepared for the variations of dirt and grass within each state.
All contexts aside, it’s like the man (and Muddy Waters) said: he’s ready.
// Notes from the Road
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