Even if you’re unfamiliar with Mike Johnson, it doesn’t take the press kit accompanying his latest solo album, Gone Out of Your Mind, to tell you that Johnson spent the ‘90s collaborating with Mark Lanegan and J Mascis; your own ears will let you know that. Your opinion of those two alt-rock heroes will color your opinion of Johnson’s latest, his fifth, album, as the fact of their collaboration goes a ways towards explaining the album’s undeniable mid-‘90s vibe.
Johnson’s been on the rock scene for 20-plus years, so he’s definitely his own man. Don’t expect a Frankenstein of Lanegan’s gravel-croak voice and Mascis’ high-flying guitar histrionics. Still, there’s no denying Lanegan’s goth-country influence on the sinister “Rot” or Mascis’ guitar DNA on “Real/Not Real”‘s solo (it should be noted that while Johnson plays guitar here, he served as Dinosaur Jr.‘s bassist from 1991-1998). And as long as we’re talking past collaborators, Johnson’s backing band, the Evildoers, includes both Jim Ross (bass, pedal steel) and Brett Nelson (guitar), who pitched in on Built to Spill albums—maybe that explains the album’s long songs?
Johnson’s got his own worldview, both lyrically and musically, and it can be summed up in a word: Bleak. In fact, he makes Lanegan seem like an honorary member of the All Girl Summer Fun Band. On the slow waltz of the title track, he growls, “Do you wanna care?” And he properly summons up fire and brimstone on a great cover of Junior Byles’ “Fade Away”: “The man who worships silver and gold will surely lose his soul and fade away,” he warns. It’s only the presence of electric guitars that keeps the songs from a true sense of the primordial. Further proof that Johnson thinks the world has gone to shit can be found in some of the album’s other song titles: “If the World Hadn’t Gone Insane”, “Rot”, and “Can’t Get It Right”. Like I said, man, bleak.
The ‘90s guitars illustrate Johnson’s musical outlook, which is less defensible than his views on the world (you can’t deny that the world is full of problems). In Johnson’s world, the last 10 years of rock never happened. I’m not suggesting Johnson don eyeliner and open for the Killers, but on Gone Out of Your Mind, he sounds, at best, like a man out of time, and at worse, sorely outdated. Hell, maybe I’ve got it all wrong and tracks like the heavy stomper “Can’t Get It Right” are ahead of the retro ‘90s curve and not behind the regular ‘90s curve. Like the satirical newspaper The Onion once noted, we’re running out of nostalgia.
But I digress. So yeah, the world sucks, and Johnson’s a good chronicler of that suckiness, but there’s enough doom and gloom in the world already. If Johnson offered any solutions to the world’s—and his own personal—demons, I might consider Gone Out Of Your Mind more highly. As it is, he seems comfortable just moaning about those woes. Some days, though, you need a storm cloud over your head. Those are the days you need Mike Johnson.
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