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Freedy Johnston stays sad

By Gary Susman

AUGUST 2, 1999:  It used to be that being a singer/songwriter was a good thing. Back in the 1970s, in the heyday of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, the thoughtful, confessional mode these singer-songwriters epitomized meshed perfectly with the navel gazing of the Me Decade. But these quiet, often acoustic performers also had the musicianship, as players and songwriters, to give their personal stories a solid grounding in sturdy pop settings, being inspired as much by the Beatles as by Bob Dylan, by Motown as much as by Woody Guthrie.

Today, it's much tougher being a singer/songwriter. Such artists as John Hiatt, Aimee Mann, and Graham Parker are still loved by critics as much for their mastery of pop songcraft as for their wry, heartfelt lyrics, but they're ignored by listeners for whom such craftsmanship is all but irrelevant, as if they were the practitioners of some quaint, lost art, like Shaker carpentry. For these performers, there is still a cultish audience of grown-ups, often weaned on that earlier generation of singer-songwriters and as alienated from today's busy, producer-wrought, bass-pounding dance pop as the mass pop audience is from the thorny, melodic, dance-averse musings of singer-songwriters.

One reason often given for their lack of commercial success is their focus on complex, often gloomy emotions, as if such feelings weren't universal. Still, when the Dow is soaring and the Starbucks is flowing, our American squeamishness over probing introspection becomes even more pronounced. At times like ours, nobody likes a party pooper, unless the music is bright and robust (as even Bruce Springsteen's grimmest songs often are), or balanced with musical virtuosity (like B.B. King's), or prolific versatility (Elvis Costello), or large breasts (Jewel). Once a gloom monger cheers up, as Bonnie Raitt did a decade ago (when she got clean and sober and married), he or she magically becomes much more commercial and much less interesting.

No one would wish continued misery on any of his or her favorite artists, yet Freedy Johnston's singular voice depends on it. As his latest release -- bearing the ridiculously apt title Blue Days Black Nights (Elektra) -- attests, a few moments of bliss could ruin him. There's nothing here as memorable or catchy as his 1994 breakthrough hit, "Bad Reputation," but also nothing as bitter; here the bile has been sweated out, leaving pure, unadulterated loneliness. It's the feel-bad album of the summer.

But oh, what gorgeous melancholy! Produced by T-Bone Burnett (himself a grumpy, underappreciated singer/songwriter) and Roger Moutenot, Blue Days has the hushed, resigned air of the seminal third Velvet Underground album, approximating the sound of coffee steam and cigarette smoke at Edward Hopper's Nighthawks diner in Jim Keltner's brushed snare and Johnston's muffled guitar and reedy, plaintive vocals. This is the sound of heartbreak so bleak that it's come out the other side as relief and self-realization. Johnston generally avoids the easy songwriter's tricks used to make a song sound sadder (minor keys, trudging tempos), letting the deceptively blithe meanderings of his melodies carry the weight of his tearjerking stories -- which creates a contrast that's all the more heartrending. Listen closely to "Until the Sun Comes Back Again," whose chiming harmonies and tripping melody practically burst with joyous anticipation, and you'll hear a song about people who can't bear the forced cheer of daylight (it reminds them of their loneliness), who find solace only at night, drink in hand.

Johnston writes with a directness and a clarity that are devastating even by his own harsh standards. Gone are the oblique, fill-in-the-blanks lyrics of his past work; here he sets out to prove the old storyteller's paradox that the particulars, the specific details, are what reveal the universal. So in "The Farthest Lights," he offers the story of an astronomer who realizes that the palest, most distant light is that in his lover's eyes. In "Emily," the singer meets an old lover in a dream, only to have her treat him as if they'd never met. And in the fanciful "Underwater Life," a trash-hauling bargeman looks with envy at a utopian city beneath the waves. Johnston's rueful tune makes vivid the appeal of a life within the depths; his career is proof that there's not much of a life for a singer/songwriter of his temperament here on the surface.

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