DAILY RECORD: Roky Erickson & Okkervil River, “True Love Cast Out All Evil”

by | Apr 19, 2010 | MUSIC

To examine “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” the recent pairing of the legendary Roky Erickson with Okkervil River, on its own merits is difficult, because Erickson is an artist whose back story is inextricable from his recorded output. Erickson’s story has been recounted many times, but for those unfamiliar, in a nutshell: helped invent psychedelic rock with the 13th Floor Elevators, did time in a psych ward that spit him out crazier than when he was admitted, made a handful of harder-edged occult themed records over the subsequent decade, spent another two decades languishing in relative obscurity and fighting mental illness, then made a near-miraculous comeback thanks to a revised diagnosis of his psychological issues. A more in-depth account can be found in the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. With many artists it can be a temptation to let the interesting life story overshadow the music, but Erickson’s back catalogue cannot be so easily written off. From his earliest forays into psychedelia to the more aggressive, sanguine-minded material of the late 70s and early 80s, his music has defied expectation and easy categorization.

To examine “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” the recent pairing of the legendary Roky Erickson with Okkervil River, on its own merits is difficult, because Erickson is an artist whose back story is inextricable from his recorded output. Erickson’s story has been recounted many times, but for those unfamiliar, in a nutshell: helped invent psychedelic rock with the 13th Floor Elevators, did time in a psych ward that spit him out crazier than when he was admitted, made a handful of harder-edged occult themed records over the subsequent decade, spent another two decades languishing in relative obscurity and fighting mental illness, then made a near-miraculous comeback thanks to a revised diagnosis of his psychological issues. A more in-depth account can be found in the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. With many artists it can be a temptation to let the interesting life story overshadow the music, but Erickson’s back catalogue cannot be so easily written off. From his earliest forays into psychedelia to the more aggressive, sanguine-minded material of the late 70s and early 80s, his music has defied expectation and easy categorization. His newest effort is not an exception.

At its best moments, “True Love Cast Out All Evil” avoids falling into the traps to which many veteran artists succumb – it trades in neither atavistic attempts to resurrect past glories or self-conscious attempts at aesthetic modernization. The backing music, provided by Austin’s Okkervil River, swings pendulum-like between the gentler folk feel of songs like “Ain’t Blues Too Sad” or “Be And Bring Me Home” and a more experimental approach, incorporating field recordings, washes of ambient sound, and occasional dabbling in quasi-free jazz dissonance. The band’s attempts falter, however, when that pendulum stops too close to the middle. While songs like “Goodbye Sweet Dream” offer the visceral satisfaction of much of Erickson’s earlier work, they come dangerously close to toothless throwback, a bar-band rehash without the psychologically damaged edge which made the originals so compelling. The middle ground is not the record’s strong suit, and while the grey areas are not unpleasant, they are not remotely as interesting as the bolder shades of dark and light which surround them.

Lyrically, Erickson treads a more conventional territory than his past work. Gone are the open-third eye meditations of his earliest albums and the demonic preoccupations of his mid-period work, replaced here by ruminations on love (both found and lost), good versus evil, nostalgia, and freedom. It is the latter theme which provides the album’s most compelling moments – the songs “Please Judge” and “John Lawman” which combine to form a sort of centerpiece for the album. Presumably informed by Erickson’s own brushes with the law, the two counterbalance each other in tone, but maintain an unperturbable sense of gravity. “Please Judge,” the plaintive lament of a parent begging for their child’s clemency, perches a fragile and unpretentious vocal performance over a sparse piano and guitar arrangement carefully interspersed with swaths of white noise. “John Lawman,” on the other hand, is easily the album’s most aggressive song. Over a descending, feedback-laden guitar line Erickson plays the part of a nihilistic yet oddly self-congratulatory personification of the oppressive force of legislative power, repeating mantra-like “I kill people all day long / I sing my song / I’m John Lawman.” The song descends into frenzied dissonance, as if to offer the aural equivalent of the protagonist’s dysfunctional spiritual machinations. Erickson’s lyrical ability is best displayed in these two songs, offering a grounded perspective on the opposing sides of a fairly abstract concept, while also demonstrating the musical versatility required for such a dualistic approach.

While “True Love Cast Out All Evil” will inevitably be judged against the merits of Erickson’s previous albums, that is not the curse it is for many veteran artists, as his newest record stands as a worthwhile addition to his body of work, not because it strains to relive past glories but because it represents another point on the creative arc of an artist who has defied hardship to constantly challenge his audience. There are weak moments on the album, to be sure, but rock and roll in general ought to be extremely thankful that nearly fifty years after he began, Roky Erickson is still gracing the world with his music.

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me




more in music

SOUND CHECK! Faye Webster, Los Gaiteros De San Jacinto and Dogwood

I am super excited for this week of shows, there are some shows that I will be singing along to every word and some where I will be carving new memories of unfamiliar groups. It is an ideal combo of pioneers who slashed their way through the music world, and the...

Scenes from ‘The Garage’ Open House

The energy from The Garage open house, held a few weeks ago. Nestled on the edge of Scott's Addition, this community hub thrives as a creative space for performance and production. Captured moments by Mike Avey showcase the dynamic atmosphere and artistic spirit.

Sound Check: Fighting Gravity, DIIV, Oddisee, and Upchuck

It is a fantastic week to get lost in music. The docket for this week is looking like nothing but refreshing and fulfilling tunes, absolutely what I need to combat the mood this ungodly and violent heat has presented to our pacifist city. With this lineup there is a...

Chandler, Los Malcriados, & Flight Club: Sound Check

Hello RVA! This weekend the city is going to be popped and packing with some big bills with bigger acts. It is prime time to see the incredibly diverse talent the city is currently providing, along with some exciting out of town acts thrown into the mix. My name is...

Topics: