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The lead track on Freedy Johnston's new album, Blue Days Black Nights (Elektra), plops you into the sort of place that sunny-sounding pop songs don't normally visit: a ramshackle boat with a hobo. Johnston's old man of the sea sails alone, collecting recyclables and enduring insults until the miraculous happens: He discovers Atlantis, right there beneath his boat. But does he tell anyone? No. He just goes to the spot every night, drops sail, and dreams himself to sleep.
For Johnston, in his Kansas farm-boy humility, "Underwater Life" might be something of an emotional self-portrait--it sounds like a Tom Waits character stumbling into Pepperland. But speaking over the phone from his tour van on the highway, somewhere between Iowa and Los Angeles, Johnston doesn't care to talk about his song lyrics, which have earned him his critical high marks and even a dash of fame. If anything, he's quicker to quietly trumpet the sonic components of his seemingly very simple music. "What's really important to me," he says, "is the delicate interplay between melody and the sound of the words."
To be sure, Johnston's lyrics couldn't translate into heartbreaking songs without the restraint of his polished, soft-rock backdrops, a decidedly unhip fusion of easy-going country and Sixties pop that nonetheless takes flight without the slightest bit of folkie drama. His singing voice is Midwestern flat, with just a dollop of twang, and he uses it relentlessly to undersell his songs.
Yet Johnston takes narrative expression with some seriousness, and fares better than most musicians when compared to artists from literature and cinema. He's less a "rock poet" than a short-story writer. Conveying his snapshots of everyday life with clipped, terse phrases, he conjures Raymond Carver. Like filmmaker John Sayles, he's seen as a literary figure working in a pop medium, though unlike Sayles, who was a writer first, Johnston says that he's never harbored any serious aspirations as a writer.
At his best he brings to mind Canadian film director Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter), who may be the only other mass-audience artist so adept at capturing ordinary characters in states of emotional paralysis. One new song, "While I Wait for You," catalogs the objects left behind by an ex (her watch, her shoes, her untended garden), like George Jones giving a "Grand Tour" of his home after a divorce. Johnston used a similar device on his finest song, Can You Fly's "Tearing Down This Place," in which a construction worker documents the destruction of a relationship (a marriage, one assumes) by giving a guided tour of the condemned family home. His best new songs, such as "Moving on a Holiday," succeed in a similar way, by getting the ordinary details right: the act of sweeping the floor as the last thing before moving, the lightness of your key ring after surrendering your house keys.
This sort of specificity was what made Johnston's easily synopsized backstory--that he sold his family's farm to finance studio time--a juicy bit of No Depression mythology. That biography informed his 1992 breakthrough Can You Fly, with its memorable opening line, "Well I sold the dirt to feed the band." But by the time the same story was referenced on 1994's This Perfect World, it had become shtick. The listener can be thankful that Johnston abandoned the confessional mode completely on 1997's Never Home, a collection of disparate sketches and skewed stories that came like a Midwestern rival to that monument of singer-songwriter sketchbooks, Randy Newman's 12 Songs.
But if Never Home was all over the map in its portraiture, Blue Days Black Nights is a streamlined affair. Recorded shortly after Frank Sinatra's death, it's a near concept album that Johnston tells me is modeled after the Chairman's own Only the Lonely, one of his favorite records. Indeed, most of the album is narrated by men dwelling on women who have either left or are on the verge of doing same. The character in "Caught as You Look Away," who studies a snapshot of his long-gone mother holding him as an infant, shares a psychic kinship with the protagonist of "Emily," who meets his girlfriend in a dream, but gets the brushoff anyway. And on "The Farthest Lights" an astronomer gives a lecture outside his home, catching his soon-to-be-estranged wife peeking expressionless out the window. The song captures the man's inchoate sentiments as he muses on his relative distance to the stars he dotes on, and the wife he's losing. And it isn't even Johnston's best--a mere grace note from rock's finest contemporary storyteller.