Cutting across gender and genre, albums by Annie Lennox, Lindsey Buckingham, Tom Waits, T Bone Burnett, Michael Penn and Suzanne Vega have made 1992 a superb year for that stand-alone, psyche-searching breed known as the singer-song-writer. In this tested company, Freedy Johnston rates an immediate “who he?” The short answer is that he’s a 31-year-old Kansan (now living in Brooklyn) who has produced an extraordinary second album, one of the most tuneful, propulsive and penetrating of this or any year.
The first thing that strikes you about Johnston is his voice. Its high, reedy lonesomeness led reviewers of his first album (The Trouble Tree, 1990) to compare him to Neil Young. Like Young, and also like the Band (remember them?), Johnston in certain songs sounds like an emissary from an earlier time. But though both sing as if in a dream, their styles are different: Young’s dreaminess has a lender, haunted, lost-in-the-ether quality, and Johnston sings with the wide-eyed urgency of a man whose dreams have seared his soul.
He writes that way too. The songs on Can You Fly tell the fractured stories of buffeted, often uprooted characters, sometimes including himself. In “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know,” he strip-mines an episode from his own life—how he sold his inheritance, his grandfather’s farm, to help finance his music—yielding an ore rich in determination and desperation: “Yes I sold the house where I learned to walk/ Falling down always/ Fifty bucks to use the van/ Trying to find your city/ Trying to get back my guitars.”
Johnston’s lyrics can be almost photographically specific. Recalling his innocent love for the title character in “The Mortician’s Daughter,” he sings, “We drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids.” More often he is both specific and elusive. You figure out that ‘ “The Lucky One” is about a low-stakes, bus-riding Vegas gambler. But even if you don’t quite get that the transcendent title song is about an angel who falls from heaven into a dirt-poor farmer’s backyard, you know you are witnessing some magical event in the narrator’s life, and you are as transfixed as he is.
That’s the beauty of the way music and lyrics can work together—the melody lends authority to the words. while the words make the melody concrete. A rocker at heart, Johnston draws from country and folk at will, and on Can You Fly he and a passionate group of musicians give each song its own distinct mood and musculature. There are 13 songs on Can You Fly. Each leaves you with lyrical mysteries to gnaw on, musical comforts to lean on. (Bar/None)