More than 25 years after "Mexican Radio", Stan Ridgway’s voice is as distinctive as ever, but his songwriting has matured a great deal and his musical palette has broadened significantly. This eclectic approach yields some notable material, but more than a few jarring shifts in style and quality.
As the front man of Los Angeles-based ‘80s new wave band Wall of Voodoo, Stan Ridgway made his mark with absurdist lyrics and a quirky vocal delivery that went perfectly with the group’s unique blend of eerie synthesizers and Spaghetti western guitars, all of which were on full display with their one hit, “Mexican Radio”, and its memorably strange music video. More than 25 years later, Ridgway’s voice is as distinctive as ever, but his songwriting has matured a great deal and his musical palette has broadened significantly. Wall of Voodoo still echoes in his work, but Ridgway has taken a far more eclectic approach with his string of solo albums, the latest of which is Neon Mirage.
Influenced by the passing of his father and the suicide of violinist and Neon Mirage collaborator Amy Farris during the album’s recording, Ridgway tackles some heavy subjects this time around. Coming to terms with getting older ("Halfway There”), losing loved ones (“Wandering Star”), and ultimately dying yourself (“Day Up in the Sun”, “Big Green Tree”), are all major themes, and the tone and sincerity of the lyrics offer a stark contrast to the witty, sarcastic offerings fans may be accustomed to. While this could fairly be characterized as a departure from past work, Ridgway is no stranger to darkness, and the mood setting opener “Big Green Tree”, which features Farris, is actually an update of a song he originally released in the ‘90s.
Songs that deal with the biggest questions are often best executed with the simplest arrangements, and the acoustic guitar, harmonica, and clean vocals on “Big Green Tree” are a perfect example. Unfortunately, this simplicity does not pervade the rest of Neon Mirage, as its dozen tracks encompass nearly as many musical shifts, and there is a dizzying array of effects applied to Ridgway’s continually changing vocal delivery. The whole affair is borderline schizophrenic. He croons slowly (“Wandering Star”), and then he talks fast (“A Town Called Fate”). He whispers (“Turn a Blind Eye”), and then he sings with a twang (“Flag Up on a Pole”). Then, on “Behind the Mask”, ten songs into the album, he is suddenly drenched in reverb, which one can only guess is the symbolic “mask” of the song’s title.
Eclectic was clearly the goal, and it was achieved, but the differences in quality from one track to the next can be jarring. The first unpleasant detour is “A Town Called Fate”, an apocalyptic country tune where Ridgway tries to channel late career Johnny Cash. But lines like “we’ll leave this hard drive by the tree” sound more like a sad attempt at modernity and less like the rueful wisdom of an aging troubadour. Another stop on this journey, and easily the lowest point, is “Desert of Dreams”, where Ridgway seems to be imitating a deranged lounge singer. The vocals are so campy it is unclear if the song is a joke, and the horns, while played competently, only add to the cheese factor.
Some of these experiments do yield great results. On “Turn a Blind Eye”, Ridgway’s hushed tone is one of his best vocal takes and meshes nicely with the smoking horn section and unexpectedly awesome flute melody. “Scavenger Hunt” is also in this zone, and among the most sonically interesting material. Another favorite is the title track, which features no vocals at all, but nicely encapsulates the feel of the American west, like the best of Wall of Voodoo, by striking a perfect balance between authentic and superficial.
Despite the abundance of styles present, the most intriguing aspects of Wall of Voodoo are in little supply. Ridgway’s mix of talking and singing (think David Byrne) which was employed to great effect on “Mexican Radio” is nowhere to be found. There is some notable material, and devotees of Ridgway’s solo work may be pleased to hear a new side of his songwriting, but many of these tunes are utterly forgettable, particularly the puzzling remake of Bob Dylan’s “Lenny Bruce”. At times, the specificity of the imagery can be very engaging, but even the marriage of simplicity and emotional depth successful elsewhere on the album grows tired by album closer “Day Up in the Sun”. Ridgway’s music has changed a lot over the years, and continues changing on every other one of these new songs, but his distinctive style is still a bit of an acquired taste, and Neon Mirage provides little incentive for new listeners to acquire it.