It’s hard to believe that Calvin Johnson has been a key figure in the indie music world for more than 23 years. To put things in perspective, when he formed Beat Happening in 1982, the Smiths had yet to put out a record, MTV was hardly a blip on the cultural radar, and Kurt Cobain was still dodging meatheads in his sophomore gym class. But what’s even harder to believe is that Johnson never lost steam. The records he has co-written and produced over the past two decades have been consistently well received, and his hipster appeal has only increased with age and time
Ironically, after bringing us Beat Happening, the Halo Benders, and Dub Narcotic Sound System—not to mention the entire K Records back catalog—it wasn’t until 2002 that Johnson decided it was time for a solo album; emphasis on the word “solo”. What Was Me gave us Johnson at his most minimal. Barren yet dynamic, the album is steered by guitar and voice, even containing several a cappella numbers. But Before the Dream Faded…, Johnson’s sophomore solo release, is a stark contrast to the bare bones approach of its predecessor. Favoring sundry instrumentation, Johnson consulted a wide assortment of his friends and colleagues for creative input—both as producers and collaborators—making the album one of Johnson’s most unique to date, if not his most daring.
The guest list on Before the Dream Faded… is impressive. “Visionary artists,” as Johnson refers to them, such as Khaela Marricich (The Blow), Phil Elvrum (The Microphones), Johnny Jewel (Glass Candy), and Mirah, among others, layer the album with heterogeneous textures and quirks. The result is a collection of dissimilar songs that achieve cohesion by way of Johnson’s MO. Musically, it traverses the variety of styles he has dabbled in over the years. The buoyant pop tones of “Rabbit Blood” and “Your Eyes” bring to mind the cheeriest of his Beat Happening compositions, while “Red Wing Black” and “Obliteration Overload” possess a more solemn, blues-oriented resonance not unlike that of the early spiritual. There is even a nod to Dub Narcotic’s neo-funk stylings in the beat-heavy sass of “Tea Leaves”.
But despite baring similarities to past releases, each of the album’s 10 tracks explores new territory, treating listeners to some fresh twists and turns, such as Casio-sounding electro-harmonies, eerie Twin-Peaks-esque lounge grooves, and a significant amount of carefully speckled, and largely organic, percussion.
Lyrically, themes such as love and courtship continue to interest Johnson, though he seems to be approaching them from a more seasoned perspective. He’s come a long way from the jejune schoolboy rhymes of songs like Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow”, in which the singer giddily professes, “The sandman is brining me a special gift / A sleepy dream memory of our first kiss”. His metaphors on Before the Dream Faded… are far loftier, such as on “When You Are Mine”, the album’s swan song, in which Johnson muses, “When you are mine, Jesus Christ will walk on water with our blessing…/ Venus De Milo will grow a couple of wings and pose for photos with an arm around each of us”.
And the album would hardly seem complete without at least one song of a more sinister nature. What else could you expect from the man who brought us “Gravedigger Blues” and “Pine Box Rock”? Johnson’s latest foray into the dark side, “I’m Down”, is the most straightforward song on the album and certainly the catchiest; a brooding yet humorous rumination on sin, seduction and brimstone. As usual, Johnson’s wit is hard to beat. In mulling over the fact that “St. Peter’s crossed me off the books”, Johnson reflects: “Lucifer was the fella who had the nerve to tell ‘em this party needs a little zing / If I’d remained silent I might still enjoy a diet of your Heaven-baked something something”. Of course, Johnson’s vocals—now deeper than ever—sometimes veer slightly off key, and the beats aren’t always perfectly locked in, but in its subtle flaws lies the album’s charm. Many artists tend to sacrifice creativity in their quest for perfection. Fortunately, Johnson never has.