An unkempt romantic streak runs through the last two decades’ worth of Texas songwriting, identifiable by its occasionally bombastic representations of violence and its more pervasive attempts at inflating even trenchantly average characters to the status of archetypes. As a lyrical tendency, it least serves those who insist on concocting “everyman” identities for themselves as performers: the collision of commonplace lyrical conceits and overstated emotionalism (which almost invariably verges on cliche) necessarily displace anything like quietude or anxiety, and a vast potential for subtle emotion is lost as a result. Its persistence in the culture speaks to an undercurrent of soul-curdling boredom.
The lack of distinction between moments of true psychic upheaval and those of resonant reflection (the two are hopelessly conflated in the unyielding pursuit of a phraseology of glorified transcendence, often through acts of aggression) betrays a near-tragic paucity of both.
That there is something profoundly American about that kind of boredom — that it is the by-product of an idealized separation from modern life, born out of suspicion of the far more sinister inflations of personality produced by the official organs of that society — should come as no surprise. In order to tolerate the solitude, there are those who paradoxically turn to the manic aggrandizement of the minutiae of their lives, and they have made their mark on our musical culture whether we care for it or not.
The records made in the late ’70s and early ’80s by Terry Allen, nationally renowned sculptor and erstwhile Lubbock troubadour, are scarred by that brand of romanticism. Recorded in the summer of 1980 with the Joe Ely band at its fullest compliment (including Jesse Taylor on electric guitar; the ubiquitous Lloyd Maines on guitars, steel, and dobro; and Richard Bowden on fiddle and mandolin), Smokin’ The Dummy is nominally a record about lives lived at the bottom of a bottle or behind the wheel of a truck, all blown up out of proportion to their real share of pathos.
Allen’s words are usually alight with an unrelenting, manic causticity, so much so that one might wonder when he ever stops to breathe. The songs are played accordingly, with a full head of steam and very little in the way of dynamics; Maines’ usual sonic signatures are rubbed blurry by arrangements that don’t give him room to do his work, and god only knows where the acoustic strings listed in the credits got dumped in the mix.
But the real problem with the material on Smokin’ The Dummy is that it lacks the things that have made Joe Ely’s best material great: an original turn of phrase, a surprise twist in a narrative thread, an inversion of the Grand American Themes it flirts with — which reveal some new side to our most common (and most commonly overused) images that had been hidden, or that we’d chosen to deny, up until then.
Allen’s songwriting succumbs to allowing the rage it’s meant to contain to be rendered inarticulate because he settles for the comfort of workaday language while attempting to impart some sort of foreboding about workaday lives. But Jeremiah’s lesson stands to correct him: You’ve got to be able to uncover some hidden truth about your Babylon in order to have grounds for condemning it.
Though you might not suspect it by the familiarity of the players or the consistency of the arrangements with his earlier work, Bloodlines is a somewhat different matter. While still not a testament to incisiveness or subtlety, this set of songs (originally released in 1983) runs Allen’s will to judge headlong into some thorny concerns about the potential appeals of violence that give them some complexity.
“Gimme A Ride To Heaven Boy”, wherein a lonely driver is duped and then carjacked by a gun-toting Jesus lookalike, actually manages to throw a moment of black humor into the proceedings, and the result is a sly comment about the fine line between faith and gullibility. Compare that to “Ourland”, a leering glimpse at homicidal mania couched in a mirage of nationalist grandeur that (matters of prescience aside) succeeds in being both vulgar and guileless, and you cast the difficulty of Allen’s struggles to discern irony from histrionics into stark relief.