The good news is that Freedy’s back, a return to the scene of one the ’90s’ most reliable songwriters. There really is no bad news here, unless you had hopes that, in the nearly nine-year (!) wait since Johnston’s last record, he would have stored up a set of mindblowing tunes that could stack up against his best records. Rain on the City doesn’t quite accomplish that feat, but it won’t be a disappointment to fans of smart singer-songwriter fare and certainly not to his ardent admirers who were wiggling about this record months before its release.
Expectations are understandably high for a guy who arrived on the scene in the early ’90s as a seemingly fully-formed songwriter and who opened up stories of American verisimilitude with a novelist’s eye for detail and went on to be one of the decade’s most prolific, consistent artists of his genre. 1992’s Can You Fly was the headturner, but it was 1994’s This Perfect World that paid a few bills as a major-label release and contained the closest thing Johnston had to a hit single, “Bad Reputation” (“…and it isn’t just talk, talk, talk”).
Already in his 30s by the time he gained national attention, This Perfect World and subsequent records found Johnston’s characters getting older and more defeated, plots which often led to increasingly lugubrious mid-tempo songs. All of those songs about Evies and Emilys were elegantly crafted but weighed down by a dry erudition that made you long for the bristling pop-rock that Johnston had previously flashed (and briefly returned to on 2001’s Right Between the Promises). Likewise, on Rain on the City, Johnston announces at the beginning that if you’re wanting to rock out, you’d better be patient, as the opener, “Lonely Penny”, is a meditative ukelele ballad that never quite gets off the ground.
The chugging-guitar power pop of “Don’t Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl” is a bit of sleight of hand as a lead single since it is the only real rock song on the record. It’s plenty catchy, but it’s not Johnston’s finest hour lyrically with rough-draft lines like “In the daytime she’s like a mannequin / And in the nighttime can’t be found / And she’s out doing things I can’t imagine / In an ordinary town”. The title song, a melancholy and romantic ballad, works much better and is the loveliest of the new songs. It’s the kind of tune that works especially well with Johnston’s distinctive sooty voice and Midwestern drawl, which, oddly, manages to find a balance between an urbane croon and a field holler.
Johnston has always written about heartache particularly well, and one of the defining motifs on Rain in the City is the bitterness of breakups—the record contains a peculiar abundance of mean-woman songs, either the speaker’s (“The Other Side of Love”) or someone else’s (“The Devil Raises His Own”). The former is a nice shimmering pop melody that contemplates the state of things when the love is gone and you’re all alone: “You’ll curse the day that you were ever loved”. Ouch. The despair in the lyrics make you grateful for the song’s groovy organ solo and hazy background vocals. Kudos, by the way, to producer Richard McClaurin for the record’s terrific sound and ace touches like the trumpet embellishments in “The Devil Raises His Own”.
Overall, Rain on the City splits a workable difference between Johnston’s instinct to slow things down and a toe-tapper now and then. The best of these is “Livin’ Too Close to the Rio Grande”, a song in the spirit of “Remember Me”, a ringer from Can You Fly. “Rio Grande” sways along like a lazy “Summertime Blues” and tosses off lines like “Between the wife and the ex and government / I never met a dollar that wasn’t spent” that tangle with a jaunty guitar riff and a capering accordion. Most surprising of the new songs is “The Kind of Love We’re In”, a dreamy lounge tune and a real departure with its piano and jazzy guitar chords. It is, however, a mode that fits Johnston nicely and features his best vocal performance on the album. Perhaps Freedy has a whole album of tunes like this in him that we can look forward to. Let’s hope he doesn’t make us wait another decade for it.