Calvin Johnson has one of the more distinct singing voices you’ll hear, unbelievably deep yet sonorous. It betrays his presence with the first breath; he can never go hidden on a recording. His attitude towards music and the music industry is just as unique. Johnson eschews attempts at “professionalism” for the sake of free expression and creativity. He takes a DIY, guerrilla-style approach to performing, showing up at campgrounds and house parties alike to belt out his feelings and dance his heart out.
Though Johnson has been a constant presence in the indie-music world for close to 20 years, with groups like Beat Happening, The Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, What Was Me is his first solo album. And it is indeed a solo album. Apart from two duets, it features Johnson exclusively, in about the barest format you could imagine—either voice and an acoustic guitar or just voice, acapella. He’s in torch singer-/campfire balladeer-mode, leaving the funky struts and giddiness of his other groups aside in favor of more stately, refined singing in the tradition of the jazz and pop vocalists of yesteryear. He stretches out across the songs like Jimmy Scott does, in the process bending and lifting his voice in ways he hasn’t done on record before.
While the style of What Was Me suggests that he’s trying to explore new musical avenues, the lyrics are quintessential Calvin Johnson. Creative freedom and school-boy crushes are at the forefront, as are summertime afternoons filled with love and lollipops, sex and somersaults. His child’s-eye view of life’s wonder meets a more adult take on lust and heartbreak, as it always has. The road between Beat Happening’s “Let’s Kiss” and What Was Me‘s “Can We Kiss?” is a relatively short one, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s always powerful, real emotions in the songs, along with nice melodies and lyrical non-sequitors. The setting might be more sophisticated, but there’s still verve and heart. It’s still about expressing yourself as best you can.
What Was Me is filled with memorable songs, including an epic story-song (“Plariga”) and two stunning duets with female K Records singers (Mirah and The Gossip’s Beth Ditto). While the Beth Ditto duet, “Lightnin’ Rod for Jesus,” is a gospel rave-up, the Mirah duet, “Ode to St. Valentine,” is a gorgeous ballad that in spirit recalls some of the great Motown and jazz male-female vocal pairings. That allusion to the music of the past is present throughout What Was Me, yet the album is also unmistakably a creation of one individual. With What Was Me, it all comes back to Calvin Johnson’s voice, his personality and his songwriting.
On the title song, Johnson sings that after he dies, his songs will be him. That sentiment, that the songs we write are us, rings true with the whole spirit of this album, and of Johnson’s music in general. Here making music is about expressing who we are and how we view the world; for creative souls like him, writing songs is an integral part of being.