Roky Erickson With Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil
A rich mix of menace and beauty, frayed nerves and gentle heart
Roky Erickson is a rare rock 'n' roll combination, both casualty and survivor. Despite jail time, mental hospital convalescence and plenty of off-the-grid living, the Austin, Texas, vagabond has enjoyed enough incarnations and rediscoveries to make a more quietly dedicated career-artist freakout with envy. In the mid '60s, he was a psychedelic trailblazer before that was a cool thing to be (scoring the maniacal hit "You're Gonna Miss Me," with the 13th Floor Elevators in 1966), and an outlaw Texan blues rocker before Billy Gibbons had facial hair. His lost period during the '70s was as lost as they get, but in the '80s he found fresh purchase via the post-punk psychedelia and roots-rock revivals (the Satanic bluster of 1981's The Evil One might be his career highpoint). When the alt-rock '90s rolled around with its fetish for marginalia, he was a canonical figure, releasing a 1995 album on Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffee's Trance Syndicate label.
But Erickson's more than just a Syd Barrett with staying power. His hallmarks are a kind of hard-bitten vocal wonderment that mixes spite with whimsy, and a songwriting style that channels bluesy hurt and urgency through a windowpane of lysergic pique. And his most recent comeback is one of his best: Erickson enlisted driving Austin indie -rockers Okkervil River to record songs he wrote in the early '70s, while housed in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane on drug charges. The results are a rich mix of menace and beauty, frayed nerves and gentle heart, weirdness and truth. Erickson's wayward talk-sing is grizzled-grandpa kindly, his phrasing ramshackle, his relation to melody often tangential. But little of the appeal here is of the "he-so-crazy" variety; usually, he just sounds like a nice, loopy old guy playing a relaxed game of poker with his demons, which is fitting for a record about beating evil with love. More often than not, he still finds a forked path on the way to locking in with Okkervil's solid, pretty, unobtrusive country-rock.
The title track sets lines like "Living is a necessity/ Please do not die" to a hushed strum cut with lap steel. "Please, Judge," is a parched plea for freedom over a minimal, haunted piano. "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" recalls his dark '80s garage records. "Birds'd Crashed" is a hilarious metaphor for finding romantic commitment. But whether he's contemplating true love or God or alienation or justice, Erickson always appears as if he's viewing the world through a cotton-y veil of social-psychological dislocation. It only makes the album's unsinkable optimism more powerful.