I still remember the dreary January afternoon, ten years ago, when Grant showed me the mock-up of the cover of ND #14. It was the day before the magazine was due at the printer and I was helping with some last-minute proofreading. When I saw the words “Alejandro Escovedo: Artist of the decade” splayed to the right of Glenn Hilario’s illustration, my first thought was, “You gotta be kidding. Alejandro is terrific, but what about, I dunno, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams? Or maybe an omnibus nod to ’90s alt-country progenitors Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and Wilco?”
Grant had recently moved to Nashville and we were working in his second-floor apartment above a garage in southwest Nashville. When I asked him about the thinking behind the decision to lionize Alejandro in this way, he shrugged and said that there were just some artists you went to the mat for, and that “Al” was one of them.
Something to that effect anyway. Grant cited a couple-three other names as examples — Billy Joe Shaver, the Bottle Rockets, maybe Steve Earle — before going on to say that making the announcement two years before the decade ended was sure to get people talking, not to mention attract attention to a deserving and largely unsung artist.
Alejandro’s annunciation certainly got me thinking, and the more I mulled the idea of him being named alt-country’s artist of the decade, the more sense it made, especially coming from ND. The spirit of his bracing fusion of punk, rock and twang was totally in keeping with that of a magazine born of a Seattle grunge scene that increasingly turned to tradition-steeped, song-based material for grounding. Not only that, Alejandro embodied many of things that ND aspired to be — original, nervy, forthright, committed.
“Al” has long since proven Grant and Peter’s case, and not just with his unassailable records and epiphanic shows, but also with his irrepressible zest for living, even as he struggles with Hepatitis C, a perennially life-threatening condition. His forthcoming Real Animal (due June 10 from Back Porch/Manhattan), meanwhile, sounds to me like a career record, at least after my first dozen or so plays. The album definitely qualifies as a summation of sorts, a taking stock — through inspired new material written with fellow traveler Chuck Prophet — of more than three decades on the road and in the studio.
“Nun’s Song” looks back on Escovedo’s late ’70s stint with the punk band the Nuns, who, along with fellow San Franciscans the Avengers, opened the last-ever Sex Pistols show at Winterland in 1978. “We don’t want your approval/It’s 1978/We know we’re not in tune/We know we’ll never be great,” Alejandro defiantly taunts. Later, after musical or lyrical nods to “Louie Louie”, “96 Tears” and the Stooges, he gives a shout-out to a punk goddess who smacks of Nuns lead singer Jennifer Miro, while in “Smoke”, he namechecks Richie Dietrich, another vocalist with the group, who apparently did time in Chino.
“Chip n’ Tony” revisits Alejandro’s days with the Kinman brothers in the cowpunk outfit Rank & File. “We’re coming on strong, just like an accident,” he exults, alluding to the band’s then-unholy alliance of thrash and twang. “Chip and Tony said it was against the law/Come on!”
Scenes from the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and San Francisco’s Tenderloin are interspersed throughout the album’s thirteen tracks, along with snapshots of poets on barstools and the fringe-dwelling likes of Sweet Demida, Neon Leon, and “Nancy in her black underwear/Dead on the bathroom floor.”
Dispatches from the demimonde tend to predominate, but there also are plenty of intimate, introspective moments here. None is as wrenching as “Sister Lost Soul”, a tender outpouring of regret, accented by Spectorian flourishes, for someone from Alejandro’s past who is forever beyond his grasp. “You had to go without me/You wandered off alone,” he sings, “And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk/Only reminds me you’re not coming home.”
In “Golden Bear”, a spooky ballad that seems to be about the potentially fatal infection he’s lived with for more than a decade, he muses, “There’s a creature in my body/There’s a creature in my blood/Don’t know how long he’s been there/Or why he’s after us.” Elsewhere, he reckons, “Nobody left unbroken, nobody left unscarred…That’s just the way things are.”
Sonically, Real Animal serves as a compendium of Alejandro’s music, reflecting nearly every facet of his expansive body of work. “Smoke” is volcanic punk of the sort heard in his epic remake of Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, while “Always A Friend”, punctuated by ebullient “uh-oh” chants, is a surging post-glam anthem, snakeskin boots and all.
“Swallows Of San Juan” is but the latest example of the gorgeous chamber-pop Escovedo and his band have cultivated over the last decade and a half; “Sensitive Boys” is one of his crepuscular, pathos-drenched ballads. The harmonica blues of “People” and slashing guitar of “Real As An Animal” have the tough garage-y feel of his work with the True Believers and Buick MacKane. The spirits of fellow rock ‘n’ roll animals Lou Reed, Ian Hunter and David Johansson are in there, too.
All of Alejandro’s musical passions are represented here, with the exception of twang, the absence of which isn’t entirely surprising, given that Real Animal was produced by Tony Visconti, perhaps best known for his glam-inflected work with David Bowie and T. Rex.
“Slow Down”, the elegiac ballad that closes the record, has Alejandro singing, “Close your eyes and you can hear the music in the wind.” Listening to the by turns lovely and serrated playing on Real Animal, I found myself hearing echoes of songs, from “The Rain Won’t Help You” to “Broken Bottle”, from just about every phase of Alejandro’s career.
Much of that music is intertwined with No Depression, a magazine that, at its best, enabled us to hear the music in the wind as well.