The story about Freedy Johnston is that he sold his Kansas homestead to make it as a musician in New York City, a tale documented on his standout song, "Trying to Tell You That I Don't Know," from his standout second album, Can You Fly (1992). On Johnston's excellent new record, This Perfect World, his themes are still about leaving home for the half-promised land, in songs finely crafted and sung in a clear tenor that echoes the aching country voices he grew up listening to.
about loss, loneliness and grief that snap like small but potent firecrackers. When he wordplays like Elvis Costello or phrases like Neil Young or recalls Simon and Garfunkel in a verse and chorus, forget it. Nobody
sounds like Freedy Johnston. He's an American original.
Consumed with deceit and guilt, Perfect circles the impossibility of telling the whole truth. Johnston's cries in the dark are all apologies, with more than a hint of an edge: "I know I've got a bad reputation/And it isn't just talk, talk, talk," from the opener "Bad Reputation"; "I still deserve to say goodbye, no matter what I've done," from the title track.
Despite its dark center, Perfect is something of an urban homage, with rhythms and melodies that suggest a man out on the town, walking the city's streets, over bridges, across avenues. The jaunty beat and lyrics in "Bad Reputation" might sound like a celebration "Suddenly, I'm in Herald Square/Lookin' in the crowd/Your face is everywhere" until you catch: "Been breakin' down/Do you want me now?"
The alienated dreamer wanders through most of Perfect. In "Evie's Tears," the subject is a woman with a rape in her past (the song's moist reprise, "Evie's Garden," is the album's only disappointment). "Can't Sink This Town" addresses a "barefoot whore" with repeated urgency: "I thought you said you were lonely." In the title track, a dying father comes back to reclaim his estranged daughter, musing the ideal afterthought: "This perfect world, so blue I can't begin to say...."
Johnston lets his voice be lovely in a way that belies Perfect's doomy material; the result casts a slightly different persona than on Can You Fly less sharp, more tentative and resigned but still with a self-aware wit. The vocals bend, keen, tremble, complain and open into wells of yearning.
And for the most part, Johnston seems incapable of writing a tune that doesn't stick. It doesn't hurt that his band backs him beautifully most notably, guitarists Dave Schramm and Marc Ribot and bassist Graham Maby. The accusatory vocals of "Disappointed Man" and the lilting melody that accompanies a raconteur's paranoia in "I Can Hear the Laughs" are the perfect closers to an album that perfectly captures Johnston's twin passions for irony and hope. (RS 686/687)