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CD Review: Roky Erickson With Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil (Anti-, 2010)

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Roky Erickson’s new album begins with a field recording, made by his mother during a visit to the Rusk State Maximum Security Prison For The Criminally Insane. He’d been sent there after being arrested for possession of one joint in 1969, and served for three years. What happenned to him during those years profoundly altered the rest of his life, as he battled a raging depression and paranoia that left him only partly functional even at the height of his career. As of a decade ago, it was reported that his condition had deteriorated almost beyond hope of recovery. Ravaged by dementia and a life-threatening dental abscess, he seemed, from the outside, to have been left for dead.

But about nine years ago, his story finally began to lighten up. The intervention of his brother Sumner and son Jegar saved his life and paved the way for a remarkable return to physical and mental health, as well as a return to his music career. The last four years have seen him fit and healthy, performing at a high level of intensity, travelling around the globe for the first time in his life. This album includes the first studio recordings of his revival, along with a couple of snapshots from the past.

One might expect the songs from the Rusk era to possess the same demonic rage found in almost all of his solo work, But instead, Roky sits with the tape recorder rolling in the prison courtyard, one of his buddies from prison band the Missing Links (all of whom, except for Roky, were in jail for various combinations of rape and murder) playing a second guitar beside him. He hesitates for a second, then strums out the gentlest of melodies and delivers a bizarrely poetic devotional.

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“For Jesus cannot and does not and will not/ Slay any person/ As somewhere was once/ Falsely written/ And too as Jesus is not a/ Hallucinogenic mushroom/ Don’t wait for Christ to come/ He has already risen.” The voice on the tape, though weary from thorazine, is assured and confident. Midway through the recording, overdubbed strings and organ begin piling up behind the voices, building and building these blocks of chords, until time suddenly warps into the present day. The same voice almost forty years later sings an ancient sounding country blues about the very experience we’ve just caught with a sideways glance.

“Electricity hammered me through my head/ till nothing at all was backward instead.” The voice this time is older, huskier, but clear, emotionally raw and crackling with energy. The effect is immediately, unexpectedly moving.

At least five of the other songs heard on this album - recently recorded with the sublime and ornate backing of Austin band Okkervil River, whose leader Will Sheff produced and chose the material - were written during the Rusk era. All of them ring out with a sense of love and optimism that initially seems at odds with the fearsome, devil-praising luantic of “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer”, “Night Of The Vampire” and “Bloody Hammer.” But this is not a case of mellowing out in old age, these are the songs he wrote while actively trying to mellow himself out at a young, frightened age. “Be And Bring Me Home” envisions a savior coming to love his illness away, declaring “They said you were a criminal/ No one sees no crime/ They said I might need their dirty prisons/ But I love the way you don’t give me time.” Another epic waltz, “Forever”, plays like a lost Roy Orbison single, Roky’s belting tenor riding atop a glorious symphonic backdrop.

The album’s most wrenching moment of self-reference comes with the one-two punch right in its center. “Please Judge” is an unmistakable address to his own jailer performed to a spare, reverberent piano accompaniment. “Please don’t give him time/ please don’t him confine”, he begs plaintively. The delicate piano line is then sawed in half with the sound of screeching guitar feedback, which is then joined by the din of a dozen TV sets and radios all tuned to different stations, blaring at the same time. It’s another field recording, one taken from the days when he would do this to drown out the voices in his head. The noise screeches to a halt as Roky begins to plead again, “I’ve been watching him for days/ And most of the time he prays.”

After this hymn-like number draws to a close, the band slams into a relentless, nightmarish riff straight out of Evil One territory. This song’s not populated by any werewolves, vampires or creatures from the black lagoon, but an entity more fearsome than anything Roger Corman ever came up with. “I kill people all day long/ I sing my songs because I’m/ John Lawman.” This one single line is repeated six times, then a guitar solo, then out, no bridge, no chorus. The same band that sounded so stately and elegant just a couple of songs ago is now gnawing away with abandon, the guitars screaming and hollering like Bill Miller’s psychotic electric autoharp did on Roky’s seventies records. It’s the album’s one descent into the territory of evil, and it’s as chilling as anything he’s done.

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To imagine this guy writing these songs in jail, then working out the arrangements on a battered guitar with a roomate that had just killed both his parents, is unavoidably poignant. But True Love Cast Out All Evil is no sob story; it’s a great rock and roll album. A bit heavy on the ballads, true, but an honest, fire-breathing rock and roll album. “Bring Back The Past” is downright jaunty, like the Buddy Holly songs he used to emulate in the 13th Floor Elevators days, or even his own “Starry Eyes.” Knowing what he’s been through, the overall effect is completely uplifting, even victorious. But anyone who doesn’t know the backstory will still hear a collection of instantly memorable songs, sung with commitment by a great singer who’s backed by one mother of a band.

Sheff’s production shows a deft studio hand, as well as unique sesitivity to his subject. Roky’s never had this kind of Phil Spector-level production, but that powerful voice makes him a natural in these surroundings. The band can become massive sounding at the drop of a hat, but Sheff makes intelligent use of the available space. Most of the songs are pared back to a standard rock band format, and even the grand, sweeping orchestral tracks don’t feel overdone. At each moment, the arrangements are in service to the song and to the vocal, never big for the sake of being big. But when they do decide to go big, as on the opening fanfare of “Birds’d Crash” or the sweeping final chorus of “Forever”, they’re absolutely enormous.

As the whole production draws to a close with another gentle prayer recorded long ago, the emotion I find myself feeling is gratitude towards Roky's family for looking after him these last few years, and also to Henry Rollins who, it’s revealed in the liner notes, paid for the dental work that cured Roky’s abscess and started him on the road to recovery. Had no one stepped forward to do that when it was needed, neither this album nor Roky’s whole second wind might have come to pass. So say thanks to old Angry Hank if you run into him, and pick up this album first chance you get. It’s pretty unusual that comeback albums from sexagenerians manage to compete with, let alone out-perform, the records they made in their prime. Usually the best you can hope for is something that doesn’t drag down the artist’s legacy. But I’m here to testify that this album gives even the revered Evil One a run for its money, and as such, is a serious contender for the best album the guy’s ever made. He’s always been here before, but what a treat to have him here now.

True Love Cast Out All Evil is available from Anti-Records on April 20.

Roky Erickson performs with Okkervil River at the Mayan, 1038 S. Hill St,, on May 18. Tickets available from Ticketmaster.

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Click here to stream “Goodbye Sweet Dream” via Pitchfork.