If you were a musical note this season, you would want to be sung by Freedy Johnston. You’d know that he might crack and strain, but you’d stay whole. You feel weak, brittle, and complicit, and his every effort would work towards your integrity. You’d fall in place with the other notes in the melody, in the odd, on-the-syllable delivery and rejection of melisma that make many of his compositions seem part children’s song, part Christian hymn. Saved briefly, you’d then just fall: found then lost, fragile and indelicate, human. But for a moment, you’d feel like you received what the rueful and humiliated speaker in This Perfect World‘s “I Can Hear the Laughs” can only desire: a kiss from Oz’s lovely witch, a kiss on your pale bleeding brow.
Something of this clumsy love can get us through a season of war. By way of the benefit concert, pop has seemed like a parade of virtue; by way of everything else, it has sounded like knee-jerk nationalism. At pop’s worst, these impulses combine in tedium like Alan Jackson at the Grammys, a performance which sought to make the terrorism and its war quaint, as if 9/11 and its aftermath need a banal memory jog. In such a context, Johnston becomes curative. His 2001 release Right between the Promises was felt differently after September 11th. Though it lacks the unity of his earlier cds, it presents the different identities-indie rocker, earnest folkie, and would-be crooner-that have defined his career, and thus nicely showcases his art, his dilemma, and the shifting meanings of pop in a time of crisis.
As with much of his work, the songwriting on Right between the Promises feels built from the restrictions of his voice. While a Dylan or Costello will write a more adventurous melody and then work expressively within their vocal limitations to deliver, Johnston seems to compose a song in a strange Freedy scale based on notes he can hit. On the new record, you can feel this most palpably in the bridges. In the Waitsian “Back to My Machine” — with lyrics that evoke the various kinds of alienation that come with merging technology and love — he moves to an ethereal, waltzing melody that contrasts with the chant-speech of the verses. In “Broken Mirror”, he shifts urgently to a new octave at the bridge, the strain now doubly felt as he sings in a higher range while remaining true to the freedatonic scale. Compare these originals to the cover of “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”, a composition of such simple ease, offering pleasures akin to one’s memory of cotton candy. Most of the interest here comes in the tension between the limited reach of his singing and the major-key roll of the cover’s structure. What is ultimately compelling in the record’s music is how Johnston conveys vocal effort, how — through performing style more than lyrical content — he communicates care.
Johnston’s art may address pop nationalism in an especially helpful way. His rootsy-urban persona seems to match a larger myth of American geographical diversity and self-making. But the ache at the heart of this persona does a better job of humbling U.S. pretensions. The “everything has changed” mantra droned since September 11th needs to be specified: it means that the U.S. has become more like the rest of the world, open to the suffering and terror many countries feel on a regular basis.
Bridging the gap between rural life and New York City, Johnston redefines a nationalist sensibility. He’s been promoted as a migratory Kansan, the inheritance of a farm his stepping stone to a musical career: the opening lyric of his first major album lets us know he “sold the dirt to feed the band”. Yet he is predominantly associated with the Hoboken and Brooklyn music scenes, and the place names of his songs locate us at Herald Square and or on Brooklyn Bridge, as do the somber vistas on the cover of 1999’s revelatory Blue Days, Black Nights. (He has reportedly moved recently to Madison, Wisconsin.) The latter record sustains what already dominated This Perfect World and what was submerged on Never Home: it transports to New York City a melancholy that seems nurtured in the long prairie state winters, capturing the lonely tramping of streets, the turn inward for an impoverished warmth, the distance felt from 8 million others. While NYC is no doubt finding community, residents there also understand that mourning doesn’t necessarily end, that loss is just loss. Johnston’s best songs — listen to “Cold Again” or “The Farthest Lights” — refuse to resolve, telling us something about the felt life of New York now.
Johnston live can be charming, but his personality often seems overwhelmed by bleaker associations. Looking like a Capote killer, his stage manner exhibits a tightly wound self-deprecation. Between songs and while tuning obsessively, he dips into a clipped patter that lets you laugh at its inconsequentiality — he either recriminates himself for observations about imported Squirt bottles in his Brooklyn neighborhood, or, better, plays it straight. But his demeanor during the songs is something else. The vocals make his body move like a mismatched defender in a basketball game, visibly pained by an ungainly reach after each note. His face wears it badly, haunted and scowling. But indeed, it’s the look of any one of us who cannot sing, when, in private, we try, actually and unsuccessfully, to sing. Johnston is also registering his move from a rock vocalist’s slack declamations to a solo performing career about songwriting, where delivery requires precision. And the strain can create for a kind of winning drama for each show, as he either hits the notes or earns them through conviction.
Part of a midwest solo tour, a performance last fall pressed the dynamic, however, to the point of collapse. Less a problem with singing, his frustration over missed chords and bad feedback spilled over into a grouchy depression that soured the show’s first half. The drama bottomed out as he announced his blue mood, mentioned the NYC tragedies, and mumbled “Ok, a happy song . . . hmm, a happy song . . “, then launched into “Cold Again”. Of course, he, like the rest of us, should be depressed. What touring and performing has been like this fall and winter is beyond me, with attendance down everywhere and crowd mood unpredictable. PJ Harvey plays “Kamikaze” while Johnston won’t play “Western Sky”, a moving song about a pilot’s son who won’t fly because he lost his father to a plane crash. Perhaps Polly Harvey punctures sentiment and sanctimony with this gesture, and it is exactly what rock ideology demands. While Johnston is inclined to the rock myth’s rebellion, his material does not lead him to such gestures. In any event, the divided identity of rocker and folkie creates for potential static when trying to address audiences in the current climate. Moreover, a performer in Johnston’s position of downward mobility (his next-big-thing status having sputtered and his major-label contract now vulnerable, a class slide from entitlement to uncertainty) might feel the mood especially acutely.
As a singer-songwriter who rocks, Johnston is of course not alone, but his mix is so much more integral to his music than the posturing of someone like Dan Bern. Bern’s rock attitude seems new because it is literate male bravado, but it comes across as old, self-regarding schtick in a scary hybrid: sensitive frat guy. Johnston’s combination of rock and folk sensibilities, on the other hand, can help us stay aware of suffering, alert to the pain of others and the hurt done in return. Johnston’s sublime mix is a kind of mourning, one that, during the crisis, Bush-Oz’s fake wizard-refuses when he intones vengefully “Let’s roll”. (Channeling the courage of a passenger on the downed Pennsylvania plane with this phrase, Bush only reminds us of his 9/11 wanderings. Maybe Jackson’s “Where were you?” has a point.) With the civilian death toll in Afghanistan having risen above 3000, Johnston seems to respond: “Let’s rock and folk”. An artist caught among similar categories, Dave Alvin once addressed the question of labels at a live show. He agreed there were two kinds of music, paused for a moment, and then explained that what he plays is “loud” music. In a season of bleeding brows and cold winters, Johnston’s loud music can keep us keening.
Matthew P. Brown is an assistant professor of cultural studies and American literature at the University of Iowa.