Forty-plus years later this little-known Terry Allen album deserves a larger audience, a new and much bigger set of listeners to puzzle over this eccentric classic.
Terry Allen is exactly the kind of artists who should have a cult-classic record (or two) under his belt. He has made some serious country-influenced, singer-songwriter records, the kind that are full of memorable lines and characters, full of death and sex and booze (not always in that order). But Allen is also an accomplished visual artist, with pieces showing in museums across the world. Paradise of Bachelors, no stranger to odd yet satisfying reissues -- check out Lavender Country and the Mike Cooper albums for evidence -- is working to bring Allen's best work back into the light. That process starts with the reissue of 1975's Juarez.
The record is perhaps the most satisfying concept album in American music. What makes it so satisfying is the ways it, intentionally or not, pokes at the oddities and limitations of the concept record. On the second track, Allen stops the music and just tells the story. He refers to his narrative as a "simple story", even as the characters travel "probably by motorcycle" and other details start to smudge. The track lays it out like this: Juarez is the story of two couples. One is Sailor, a man on leave from the navy, and a prostitute named Spanish Alice he meets and plans to wed. The other is the criminal Jabo and his rock-writing woman Chic Blundie. The two couples meet in Juarez. There's a fight. Sailor and Spanish Alice are killed. Jabo and Chic Blundie are on the run.
It's a story that covers a lot of country and folk tropes. Finding love in the wrong place. Drinking too much. It's a wonder if Jabo and Chic don't end up running in to Pancho as they flea deep into Mexico. But what Allen smartly suggests in laying out the story right away is that what happens isn't nearly as important as how the story is told. The small, unreliable details in his narrative tell us that, but so do the constantly shifting lands of this record. Juarez is named after a place, and takes us through California and Colorado, and yet you've never heard a country record so fractured in its account of the road. These places are prisms, reflected in the broken people Allen populated them with. The sense of atmosphere also feels expansive and overwhelming around these songs thanks to Allen's spare instrumentation. Most songs are built just on Allen's piano and some guitar from Greg Douglas. And many of them return to a similar waltz over and over again. But this "simple" music is another brilliant trick on Juarez, another thing that contains multitudes.
Consider "Dogwood", one of the most beautiful and sneakily funny moments on the record. Jabo pleas to Chic Blundie on the song by comparing himself to a dogwood tree. "Someone came and carved a cross out of me," he says, one that is taken to Jerusalem and, of course given to "a carpenter's son". He speaks of Jesus as a burden he's carried, even though he's "far away from here" and uses this as an appeal to Chic to come with him, to see him differently. When he turns directly to Chic, as an appeal, it feels so heartfelt and yet so misguided you can't help but laugh even as the song hits you in the gut. It's a moment that calls to mind many a Flannery O'Connor anti-hero, one burdened by faith even as they don't live by it. But it's also a red herring. He spends the next song writing with Chic on every rock they come across on their travels cross country. There's no more spirituality. There's the world as a corporeal thing to make your mark upon. "The Radio… and Real Life" makes the distinction between the abstract and the concrete even clearer. When Allen sings about the radio, he sings about "open[ing] your soul like a door", but when he sings about real life, he claims "I'm gonna love you / like you've never been loved before." There's nothing abstract about that love. It's an action, purely of the flesh.
Jabo isn't the only anti-hero to be found here. Sailor delivers his own heartbreaking moment late in the record singing a ballad about his new wife on "What of Alicia", but when he meets her in the barroom stomp of "Border Palace", he's just "sucking on Dos Equis beer". He even refers to her as "greasy Alice" over and over again. Allen spits these words out with a drunken snarl, something far removed from the sweet love he sings "What of Alicia" with.
Juarez's true excellence comes in these sort of reversals, from the profane to the spiritual to a space more limbic and then back through them all again in a different order. Jabo and Chic part on closer "La Desperdida (The Parting)", but there's no sense of law in pursuit or urgency to move forward. There's just the taking of a breath, a bittersweet thought over what they've experienced together. Nevermind the fight and the murder, there's something almost nostalgic in this last song, and you suddenly have a feeling you've spent a lot of time with these characters, gotten to know them even as they try to hide from us at every turn.
Juarez distorts these western territories into something new and unknown by filtering it through these fascinatingly mosaic characters. Trying to lay out the story, to find out what it means, is beside the point. Juarez is an experience, one that can break your heart with the sweetness of "What of Alicia" or "Dogwood" or put the sting of whiskey in the back of your throat with the hard, crass thumping of "Border Palace" or "There Outta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California". The spoken-word does at some point from a curious counterpoint to an indulgence -- not unlike Lee Hazlewood's Trouble Is a Lonesome Town -- but 40-plus years later this little-known Terry Allen album deserves a larger audience, a new and much bigger set of listeners to puzzle over this eccentric classic.