There is an edge of something perfectly crazy in Calvin Johnson's music. Maybe it's his out-of-tune baritone register, the looseness of his songs, or the bare-naked emotional shrieks and hollers. Whatever it is, Johnson's latest solo record, Before the Dream Faded, is a special creature with his trademark qualities in full form -- sloppy seriousness, doe-eyed eagerness, and the punk rock, punk pop whimsy he lends to the quintessential love song.
Fans of Calvin Johnson's earlier Beat Happening days will recognize echoes from that band, only this time pared down and arguably more mature, with his deep voice cushioned by guest appearances and free jazz grooves. But even the unacquainted may find themselves drawn to the record -- one that brews in raw emotional heart.
The record opens with a quiet number, "When Hearts Turn Blue," which in some ways encapsulates the heart of Johnson's charm -- a simple song, simply sung (and remarkably out of tune no less), with a child-like emotional transparency that belies a darker sensibility. Indeed, the title of the track itself, while at first glance appearing to make the long-familiar association of the color blue with feeling down and out, at one point connects the blue color of hearts to well-worn bruises received from love's hard beatings: "A beautiful nasty bruise, I never felt the blow. That bruise got colors reminiscent of when hearts turn blue." Simple songs, with darker rumblings underneath.
Yet for the majority of the tracks on this record, at the point when a song teeters between gloom and glee, wizened playfulness wins the day. Case in point, in "When Hearts Turn Blue," the song clunks forward over what sounds like a Casio keyboard, the plunking of banjo strings, and a soft electro beat, and then leads to interludes such as "Hearts come in every variation, shades of pink, ochre and chartreuse,â€ not too long after the talk of bruises and beatings. Really, it's hard not to smile when you hear someone sing that hearts can come in chartreuse (which, incidentally, is a light green-ish color).
It's not all plunking banjo, though. And much of the record has Johnson getting worthwhile collaborative instrumental help from bands at his own label, K, not least from Phil Elvrum of the Microphones/Mount Eerie and Adam Forkner of Yume Bitsu. The track "Rabbit Blood" is greatly helped by a bluesy drum beat and grizzly guitar noises, while "I'm Down" features a loungey guitar line, tambourine clapping, and quivering organ in the backdrop to add a vaguely Twin Peaks vibe to the record. "Leaves of Tea," an easy favorite, then has some free jazz rumblings in it, with Casiotone and an expert trombone bleating away in a free-spirited mood. "Your Eyes" has the record turn toward the plainly endearing, with folk-style acoustic guitar strumming over Johnson singing, "Your eyes are they green or are they gray? I was too startled to notice when I had the chance to notice. Your bangs all curly brown cover your eyes half the time."
There are a few musical additions that guest producers slip in which are unnecessary and superfluous, particularly the female vocal harmonies in the opening track, which more than anything draw further attention to the fact that the song's out-of-tune. However, given the number of "guest producers" the record appears to have, it's still a relatively coherent album as a whole, anchored by Calvin's wacky, poetic banterings.
Indeed, being silly and serious at the same time is the trick Calvin Johnson plays well. Over finger snaps and quirky electro beats, Johnson manages to pull off the delicate feat of being funny without any wise-cracks, remaining plaintive while he's at it. The tricky part, however, is that the very qualities that make this record noteworthy are the qualities that may wear thin on others. Its goofy experimentalism, awkward style, and its impossibly tender love musings will endear this record to some, while annoying others for the same reasons. Not everyone is bound to like this melancholic take on broken hearts, second tries, and punk-rock confessionals.
One thing is for sure, though. Whether you like it or not, Before the Dream Faded is a breath of fresh air against a backdrop of indie posturing, slim black ties, and tight-fitting suits. The wild-eyed craziness induced by love-sick love is what Calvin Johnson gets right, and we should be thankful that his latest record gives us such a raw, messy glimpse. - Christine Back
Ms. Back lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with three guitars, a 1950s Mason & Hamlin piano, and a beagle. When not studying legal doctrine and social justice law, she fronts the indie-rock band Que Verde and dabbles in art, film, and writing projects.