[18 April 2010]
Less than a decade ago it was almost inconceivable that Biblically troubled Texas singer/songwriter Roky Erickson would ever return to playing music, let alone do much of anything. While many before him have navigated the dark waters of drug abuse, mental illness, and poverty, very few have resurrected themselves quite as miraculously as Erickson has. With his personal rehabilitation complete, Erickson returned to the stage in 2006 and last year collaborated with the hyper-literate troubadours in Okkervil River on his first studio recordings in over 14 years. True Love Cast Out All Evil, the resulting album, is a staggeringly life-affirming work that sticks to your soul long after the final notes ring out.
The road to True Love began back in 2001, when Roky’s youngest brother Sumner went to court in an attempt to obtain guardianship of Roky, who by that point had almost completely ceased to function. Once the charismatic, prodigiously talented front man of the pioneering ‘60s psychedelic group The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Erickson, already an aficionado of LSD, had his wires permanently crossed upon being sent to Rusk State Hospital for possession of an obscenely small amount of marijuana. He would spend three years there living among rapists and child killers and undergoing shock treatments. He emerged from the ordeal hopelessly paranoid and spent the ‘70s spinning gruesome tales of brain snatching aliens, zombies, and two-headed dogs, before slipping through the cracks completely during the ‘80s. When we first meet modern day Roky in Keven McAlester’s 2007 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, he is a shattered, unkempt man who spends his day’s obsessively collecting and logging junk mail. He has few remaining teeth and his nails have grown frighteningly long. While his Mother tries to entertain him, Roky fidgets obsessively with a Mr. Potato Head doll. Later, he turns every television in his squalid apartment up to the loudest possible level… so he can relax.
Under the care of his brother, Roky was able received proper treatment for the first time in his life. The bonus features on the You’re Gonna Miss Me DVD bring us up to 2007, where the Erickson family has gathered in a courtroom once again. This time the topic of discussion is the improvements Roky has made. He has reunited with his first wife and estranged son. He has obtained a driver’s license and is playing sold-out shows in major markets around the world. Without hesitation the judge releases Roky into his own custody. As the courtroom erupts into sustained applause, the camera lingers on Roky’s face as he tries in vain not to shed tears of joy.
A return to the studio seemed to be the logical next stop on Roky’s path to recovery. A story like Roky’s almost begs to be tactlessly mishandled by someone seeking to exploit the material—maybe call up some guest stars and play everything up for maximum effect. Luckily, Erickson found an ally in Okkervil frontman Will Sheff, who seems honored to be both a student, and now peer, of Roky’s. Okkervil River began backing up Roky in concert in 2008 and the special bond between Sheff and Erickson is immediately evident in live footage of the shows they’ve played together. Onstage, Erickson performs almost every number with his eyes trained on Sheff, who beams endlessly as he subtly guides and encourages his mentor. Their interaction is downright heartwarming. Before entering the studio, Sheff was presented with a 60 unreleased songs to choose from, many of which were recorded during Roky’s time at Rusk. The 12 songs that made the final cut, Sheff notes in the album’s press materials,”…are the best songs Roky has ever written…”
True Love opens with a field recording made at Rusk called “Devotional Number One”. While an acoustic guitar is gently strummed, Roky, his honeyed tenor still in pitch perfect form, sings sweetly about Jesus… and psychedelic mushrooms. After a minute and a half, a fountain of strings suddenly and unexpectedly sprouts to life. The song’s melody suddenly goes panoramic and the effect is chilling. The wave of whirring white noise that follows is the sound of the present reaching back to Roky, beckoning him out of his cell. Clear-eyed, sober Roky arrives on “Ain’t Blues Too Sad”, a tiny slice of Americana that, despite containing lyrics like “Electricity hammered me through my head / till nothing at all was backwards instead”, sounds anything but sad. Roky’s voice is weathered and frayed yet his singing is resonant. He works hard to hit every last note and signs with a conviction not heard since his work with the Elevators.
The often harrowing subject matter and circumstances that led to the creation of most of this music initially seems to belie the optimistic, forward looking tone that runs through most of these songs. From the get go, the performances crackle with energy. In the caustic “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”, Roky sounds momentarily defeated, singing about the enormity of his loss while a persistent dull rumble of thunder constantly threatens bleed over the track. The band springs to his defense, strangling their guitars, trying to create sounds as furious as the demons themselves. The centerpiece of Side A is the hymn-like ballad “Be, and Bring me Home”, where Roky prophesizes about a life outside of the confines of his own illness. He sings, “I don’t care what they say / I love my family only”. He wants to believe that by clinging to his love of God, family, and “special and magical music”, he will one day find freedom. The jangly power-pop of “Bring Back the Past” follows and offers a brief respite before we reach the album’s dark center.
Most of the lyrical content here includes references to prison, God, and family, yet Erickson often chooses to write in the third person. Still, it’s impossible to hear “Please, Judge” without thinking that he’s singing about his own incarceration. In its original form, the song featured three simple chords strummed on an acoustic guitar. Here, the melody has been retained but the pace has been slowed to a crawl. While a distant piano reluctantly rings out in the distance, Roky’s naked, pleading voice repeatedly begs for liberation. “Please, Judge / give freedom to this child / It sure would make him smile”. He’s cut off once again by a cacophony of TV static. When his voice returns, the once-distant piano now rings out defiantly behind him. He pleads on endlessly to no avail. The following track, “John Lawman”, features the album’s only nod to Erickson’s days as a horror rock provocateur. Having spent the preceding track peacefully begging for forgiveness, Roky turns the tables and becomes the tormentor. Over a thunderous riff undercut by a free flowing river of feedback, Roky howls, “I kill people all day long / I sing my song / ‘cuz I’m John Lawman” over and over. The band puts the bloody hammer down and barrels through this number with abandon, barely holding it together until the track is carried out in a haze of skronking, dissonant horns.
Side two finds Erickson mellowed considerably. The harmony laced title track affords Roky some shelter from the storm. The unspeakably gorgeous “Forever” sounds like a long lost wedding waltz, while the bluesy “Think of As One” benefits from some Stax-y horns. If Phil Spector had produced Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it might’ve sounded something like the cautiously epic “Birds’d Crash”. The album climaxes with another field recording from the Rusk era. The classical-leaning “God Is Everywhere” may contain the most beautiful melody ever written from within the walls of a mental hospital (sorry, Daniel Johnston). As on the opening track, strings once again cascade in from out of nowhere. This time the orchestration lingers after Roky’s recording ends. We’re now finally, fully in the present day. Roky is among us and the moment, at last, belongs entirely to him.
Will Sheff and his rotating cast of musicians who populate Okkervil River have been on a decade long winning streak, but it’s his work here that should finally cement his position a major artist. He is surely one of the most distinctively poetic songwriters currently living, yet here he speaks only with his producer’s wand. His production choices, from top to bottom, are flawless. He and his band are present here with one goal; to serve Roky’s songs, and they do so with grace and ease. Even the vocal harmonies are delicate and understated. It’s largely to Sheff’s credit as producer and his band’s musical prowess that there isn’t a moment that rings hollow or falsely sentimental.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the power of this album is that it’s still a triumph minus the backstory. Subtract the legend of Roky Erickson, and you have an immaculate collection of dusty country gems and orchestral pop. With the copious footnotes, however, you’ve got the sort of album that should win Grammys. It’s a tale of redemption that earns the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind or Johnny Cash’s American series. Regardless of your views on love, life, and spirituality, it would be almost impossible not to be moved by this music. If there’s hope for Roky Erickson, well, then maybe there’s hope for the rest of us too.