Terry Allen‘s latest album Just Like Moby Dick, his first new release since 2013’s Bottom of the World, showcases the performance artist as a carnival barker for the postmodern world. It’s a crazy place where time folds back on itself. Looking backward is just another way of gazing forward. Being alone is simply being lost in the crowd. Death is merely another escape from life. The news hasn’t changed from ancient times. And people are still the same, obsessed like Ahab in a meaningless search for meaning.
The twenty-first century Allen is the same one that first brought surrealism and country music together in the 1970s. He may not have continuously made music, but he never stopped making art that befuddles and scoffs at the human condition. This release features him with his long-time allies, the Panhandle Mystery Band. The group includes co-producer Charlie Sexton on guitar; bandleader, slide guitar, pedal steel, and dobro player Lloyd Maines; the singing of wife Jo Harvey Allen and Americana maestro Shannon McNally; son Bukka Allen on accordion and piano; drummer Davis McLarty, and others on fiddle, cello, bass, and djembe. Non-performing collaborators include Joe Ely and Dave Alvin, who helped co-write some of the material.
Like other outsider artists such as Tom Waits and Howe Gelb, Allen has a sinister sense of humor that he uses to lighten up the proceedings and add emotional depth to seemingly innocent situations. In Allen’s world, Geppetto’s nose outgrows Pinocchio’s when the puppet pulls down his underwear. On another song, the town’s last stripper dies, and nobody can contact any of her kin. However, the narrator who never met her can’t help himself from repeatedly calling the phone number she left on a piece of paper in her pocketbook. On another track, when the circus comes to the town full of vampires, the undead bite holes in all the clowns who aren’t that funny anymore. These tales are delivered in a straightforward manner with a ho-hum and a shrug.
McNally’s syrupy vocals often serve as a counterpoint, especially on Jo Harvey Allen’s “Harmony Two” that ends with the narrator going 100 miles an hour at a place where the freeway ends at the cliff and ends with a declaration of love. The contrast between the slow delivery and the action fits well on an album full of contradictions. McNally also sings lead on “All These Blues Go Walkin’ By” using the same trope for a similar ambiguous effect.
Besides Moby Dick, Allen alludes to other high culture references including, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. Allen’s “Pirate Jenny” disappears while fighting the French Jean Lafitte on the Spanish main. It’s just a tall tale. Allen’s world is a place where the escape artist Harry Houdini can’t conquer death, and there is nothing left for anybody to say but “Fare-Thee-Well”. Allen’s modus operandi is to bring out the weird and wacky to make a point or two about the fact that life is nasty, brutal, and short. The listener is expected to figure out if it signifies anything.
The three-part “American Childhood” serves as the album’s heart, which explains why it occurs in the middle of the disc. It’s a story about growing up during a time of war (“Same fucking war. It’s always been. It never ends”); civil defense drills, first kisses, and the twin mysteries of sex and death. Allen lets the secrets speak for themselves. Nothing is revealed.
Allen is not despondent. He may ponder life’s ambiguities and pain. He stops short of proclaiming life is futile. He may know “half the world is screwed / the other half insane”, but so what. The fact that nothing’s going to last gives Allen reason enough to bring out a bottle of the good stuff and enjoy the moment. L’chaim!