John Doe could easily coast for the rest of his life on his history — with ground-breaking cow-punkers X and alt.country-inventing Knitters and, since the late 1990s, in a string of seven solo albums, ranging from country-flavored singer songwriter to venom-laced roadhouse punk. It’s all been good to excellent, and sometimes revelatory, and if he quit right now, he’d still be a legend. Heck, I’d give him a lifetime pass just for “Big Blue House”.
The point, though, is that John Doe doesn’t owe us anything. The fact that he’s made his best-ever solo album roughly 30 years after he started is gravy. Recorded, reportedly, in just two weeks, Doe’s seventh solo CD ranges over boot-stomping garage rockers (“Hotel Ghost”) and lovely pop-leaning duets (“Golden State” with Kathleen Edwards). It showcases Cash-like murder balladry (“The Meanest Man in the World”) and brings Exene Cervenka back into the fold, at least as a lyricist, in the wryly melancholy “Darling Underdog”.
The disc opens with a brief piano interlude, the title track, then there’s a count, a beat, and Doe rips right into the best rock song on the album, “Hotel Ghost”. This is a song that roars like a freight train, piano keys pounding, drums pushing, and, here’s the best part, Dave Alvin from the Blasters cranking a dirty, distorted roots rock groove. It’s the kind of cut that doesn’t really need lyrics to get by; it could stomp all over you with Doe singing “yeah yeah yeah” for the entire two minutes. But here’s the unexpected gift — the lyrics are pretty great. Doe, who probably spends more time in hotel rooms than is strictly good for him, imagines a spectral lover coming to visit in darkly, minimal lines like: “She sits upon my bedside and sheds her second skin / Tells me all her troubles and loneliness within / Then she shows me how to reach inside and caress her skeleton”. Not exactly, “C’mon baby, let’s go”, is it?
“Hotel Ghost” is one of a clutch of greasy rockers, a only a notch or two better than “There’s a Hole” or “Lean Out Your Window”, but still clearly the stand-out. It stands alongside an equal number of pop-country ballads, where Doe is assisted by a trio of leading ladies — Kathleen Edwards, Jill Sobule, and Aimee Mann. “The Golden State”, his duet with Kathleen Edwards is the best of these, her sweet, vibrato-touched harmonies and strong solo interludes providing a yin/yang balance that will remind you strongly of X.
It’s tempting to line-up the album’s songs along a rocker/ballad axis, and indeed, most of them fit into one or the other bucket. Yet “Grain of Salt”, closing out the album, straddles both categories beautifully, linking introspective lyricism with an inflammatory guitar solo. The moment when Doe’s tale of unrequited love (“I give you this pearl / To show my love / I’ve grown it for over a year / And if I’m true / Then maybe you / Will take me along with the jewel”) turns into triumphant instrumental march is like the second before a piece of paper catches fire, smoking faintly before it bursts into flames.
Weathered romantics, grizzled rock lovers, people who’ve been beaten down but not quite taken out, take notice. This is the record for you.