When you hear a record like Garden Ruin, you realize something has to be done.
Not about Calexico. About us, the listeners. We have to do what’s necessary — listen to The Black Light 30 times to get it out of our systems, whatever — to create a blank slate for listening to Calexico’s latest. Forget the sunny desert vistas, the border crossings, the sense of El Dorado rising out of the horizon. ‘Cause those things aren’t here.
We should have perked up more at their enthusiastic cover of Love’s “Alone Again, Or”. We should have taken the poppy, straightforward “Not Even Stevie Nicks” from 2003’s Feast of Wire as the omen it truly was. Heck, that album had only three songs topping the four-minute mark. We should have known something was up, that there was a change in the winds.
OK, so all that’s a little over the top. But Garden Ruin does change things up a bit, and it’s the kind of change-up that will get fans buzzing. The burgeoning talk of Calexico finally writing “real songs”, though, seems a little weird, since they’ve written tons of perfectly good songs over the years. But they have specialized in songs and instrumentals with lots of open spaces, that evoked images just as much as they clearly stated themes. So yeah, Garden Ruin does sound a bit like Calexico followed their muse out into the uncharted desert as far as they could, and then returned to town to shower, shave, reflect, and stock up on supplies.
At least they ease us into it, with “Cruel”, one of the few songs to feature Calexico’s famous horn section (but not in the expected mariachi sense). “Yours and Mine” follows, opening with western imagery and a gentle sway that would nestle perfectly onto a Neko Case record (which may result from their helping out on Case’s upcoming Fox Confessor Brings the Flood). “Bisbee Blue” takes the Arizona town of Bisbee — and its special vein of turquoise — as inspiration, while “Nom de Plume” blends French vocals, a banjo melody, and circus-like atmospherics. So the familiar touchstones are there, but they’re a bit like weathered mile-markers on an increasingly faint road.
But for every wistful glance towards the desert, there’s a nice song like “Panic Open String”, which always sounds like it’s one pastoral chord progression away from becoming Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” (complete with a string coda that could kick off R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming”). “All Systems Red” builds slowly, over six minutes, to a fevered, indie crescendo of guitars. “Luckey Dime” kicks off with the spryest melody you’ll hear this side of a TV theme song. But in several cases, these more conventional moments fail to soar. The guitar storm that ends “All Systems Red” can be found on dozens of left-of-the-dial albums over the last few years, just as the chorus that punctuates “Letter to Bowie Knife” comes across as ordinary.
And no matter how blank you’ve made your slate, “Roka” is clearly a highlight, with its classic Calexico feel and Spanish vocal section courtesy of Amparanoia’s Amparo Sanchez. Named after the restaurant where the band holed up during the album’s creation, and filled with desperation, “Roka” is an evocative piece that shows Calexico should always save at least one dance with the one that brought them.
What may be most interesting about Garden Ruin is the increased political awareness in Joey Burns’s lyrics. He’s always had an eye for how the issues of the day affect individual stories, but on Garden Ruin, he turns his gaze outward to environmental and political issues at large. Reportedly, the band’s tours through Europe and other areas exposed them to a lot of questions about America and its role in the world, which prompted Burns to take his lyrics in new directions. In some cases fairly direct (“new cities keep on sprawling / old towns falling too”), in others a bit more enigmatic (“birds refuse to fly / refuse to trust the sky”), Burns’s new lyrical direction represents one of the richest, most promising veins to be found in Calexico’s new direction.
In the end, Garden Ruin feels like a transitional album that will bear greater fruit later on. For now, it’s a mix of moments that work and moments that don’t, of good songs with curious moments, and weaker songs with nice moments that pique your interest. In some cases, the band’s attempts at straightforward songwriting find them using fairly ordinary structures as a crutch; in others, you can see a promising blend of Calexico’s influences and new ideas coming together in a way that makes the word “pop” sound far less troubling. So no need to begrudge the band their new direction — there are some fine, fine moments here — but we’ll have to reserve judgment to see just where this new direction takes them.