When Brian Johnson rasped “have a drink on me” on AC/DC’s triumphant Back in Black, it was with a rueful tip of the hat to the band’s late lead singer, Bon Scott, who had followed the bottle right into the grave. But like every other moment on that darkly inspired album, that invitation came with a wink and a nod, an admission that the party wasn’t completely derailed.
Not so with Alejandro Escovedo, who utters roughly the same line to kick off The Boxing Mirror. In Escovedo’s case, there’s no one to sing a raucous wake in his honor; he’s still here. And he realizes that he dodged a bullet during all his years of drinking and late nights, even after he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. As it stands, a drink could quite literally kill him, and right off the bat, The Boxing Mirror uses that sense of resigned gratitude at a second chance to forge one of Escovedo’s most aggressive, self-confrontational albums.
One only has to consider the album’s title, with its suggestion of a man sparring with himself, to see that Escovedo is as unflinching as ever. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. 1992’s Gravity and 1993’s Thirteen Years dealt with both his failed marriage and the later death of his wife, from whom he had separated. No reason to expect he’d flinch from facing his own mortality, which he faced when Hepatitis C, internal bleeding, and cirrhosis of the liver drove him to collapse after a show.
So when he sings “have another drink on me / I’ve been empty since Arizona / I turned my back on me / and I faced the face of who I thought I was”, it’s loaded with meaning. There’s the ambivalence towards alcohol, and to the life Escovedo had been living. There’s also the sense that Escovedo, happy though he may be to still be alive, doesn’t view everything through Chicken Soup for the Rocker’s Soul-branded glasses. The song’s title locale of Arizona also serves double-duty: as the location of his body’s collapse, but also where he met his poet-wife Kim Christoff. A lurching string melody and a simmering synth line, topped by a fierce guitar solo, also prove off the bat that John Cale was the right producer to helm an album containing so many conflicting threads.
As a whole, the album veers between hard-edged Stonesy rockers and more delicate moments, befitting the ebbs and flows of Escovedo’s life. He pays homage to his wife by putting two of her poems, “Dearhead on the Wall” and “Notes on Air”, to music. But those aren’t tender poems. “Dearhead” channels the sadness that radiates from a stuffed deer head; “Notes on Air” is equally dark, boasting manic, tortured lap steel playing by Jon Dee Graham. Escovedo revisits his own “Sacramento & Polk” (from 1999’s Bourbonitis Blues), making it more ferocious in the process.
Conversely, the delicate, lovestruck arrangement of “The Ladder” sounds like it’s wind-borne from some back-alley cantina as Escovedo croons, “Amongst the oaks the shapes are shifting / A shift to meld you into me”. “Evita’s Lullabye”, properly named for its comforting sway, starts off, “As your last breath hung forever / Were you dancing behind the beat?” and only gets more enigmatic from there. The easy-going “Died a Little Today” befits the calmer, wiser Escovedo, who lets the song blossom from his own literal brush with death into a slightly larger meditation on the smaller deaths of everyday choices.
If anything clouds the reflection offered by The Boxing Mirror, it comes in the form of a couple of odd production choices. Throughout the album, Cale’s production is sure-handed, guiding Escovedo to sounds and arrangements that complement his lyrics. “Dearhead on the Wall” opts for violin strains (courtesy of Poi Dog Pondering’s Susan Voelz, who does wonderful work throughout the record) that could arguably be considered dated, but at least they’re organic and natural. “Looking for Love”, though, opts for cheesy keyboards and compressed drums that would make Duran Duran proud, with some cymbal taps that go straight to an easily annoyed part of your brain. “Take Your Place” takes flight on keyboards that don’t stop until they land firmly in the ’80s. It’s jarring, and the responsibility apparently lies with Escovedo, who wanted to take a song that started out as a pure rocker and make it more danceable. Thankfully, we get that original version in the form of an alternate mix to close out the album, and it blows the doors off of Escovedo’s preferred, lighter version.
In the end, it seems silly to bring even those few missteps up, as the rest of The Boxing Mirror is so surprisingly strong. Escovedo’s career is already remarkable for its consistency, even before you consider his struggle against Hepatitis C. Highlights like The Boxing Mirror are simply a bonus. Escovedo’s ability to pull off an album like this — after nearly dying, and then enduring an arduous recovery — is validation of every rave he’s ever gotten.