Johnny Dowd: Temporary Shelter

Johnny Dowd
Temporary Shelter

The booklet for Temporary Shelter contains a family portrait, presumably of an infant Johnny Dowd with his parents. The parents’ faces are stern, unsmiling, proud. The picture itself is out-of-focus, full of shadows, and depending on your particular feelings as a viewer, it’s either comforting or very unsettling.

I’ll go with “unsettling”, if for no other reason than that’s the best way to describe Dowd’s music. Both his 1997 debut, Wrong Side of Memphis, and the follow-up, Pictures From Life’s Other Side, were startling and disorienting, with a strong Southern Gothic feel. Dowd’s voice, quavering and creepy, spoke of a life that’s encountered things it probably shouldn’t have. It’s risky trying to read too much autobiography into an artist’s work, especially one like Dowd who dismisses his experiences as “the usual mixture of stupidity, glory, and bad habits”. And while he doesn’t offer any details, he’s at least open with the fact that his songs do explore his personal history. Temporary Shelter, then, with its numerous tales of abuse, attempted escapes, and emotional damage, forces you to decide just what you’re comfortable accepting as the wreckage of one man’s life. In “Sky Above, Mud Below”, he writes, “Spare the rod and spoil the child / You must destroy everything might grow up free and wild.” “Death Comes Knocking” is a Christmas carol as written by Scrooge’s ghosts, mixing traditional holiday imagery with promises of death in the night.

But even creepier than Dowd’s decidedly bleak subject matter is his presentation. The closest kindred spirit might be Tom Waits’ clankier work (with “Angel Eyes” bearing a passing resemblance to “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”), but Waits never possessed Dowd’s sense of Pentecostal spookiness. And while Nick Cave certainly walks down similar paths, he lacks Dowd’s ability to make his fictional narratives sound intensely personal and not like a literary exercise. Maybe it’s just more accurate to imagine Giant Sand playing at a wake in Halloweentown. With off-kilter rhythms, Black Sabbath-style power chords, the occasional dance beat, and swirly background textures, Temporary Shelter often sounds like the Devil’s house band trying out murder ballads. Floating through it all is mainstay Kim Sherwood-Caso’s ethereal voice, ratcheting the spook-ometer up a notch and sounding like the ghosts of Dowd’s lost loves wrapping around his heart. It’s not an easy ride as a listener, but throughout Temporary Shelter, you feel that whatever momentary solace that Dowd is gaining from writing these songs is actually helping to build something very durable and meaningful.