At a glance, its another convenient marketing ploy: Roky Erikson psychedelic, lo-fi, proto-rock pioneer and leader of the 13th Floor Elevatorsreemerges from decades of instability, institutionalization, and criminal insanity charges to release his first album in 14 years. Backing him is a band thats constantly buzzed about but still hasnt been propelled to full-on stardom, the always-promising Okkervil River. Its a great recipe for goodness and has the rare story every PR company would give anything to have fall in their lap. Seriously, who isnt going to want to hear a mentally unstable legend team up with one of alt-countrys most intriguing forces? The press release writes itself.
But theres something different about this one. Sure, the story is a plus for record sales, but its not all there is. Like the work of Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, and other great crazies, this doesnt feel like just an exaggerated marketing scheme.
On the cover of True Love Cast out all Evil, Roky Erickson stares out at us. Its one of those stares that appears to contain every emotion from the spectrum at once. Its got all the wonderment of a child, and all the wear and tear of a man whos been through all the things Roky Erikson has. His eyes look as if theyre tearing, and maybe they are. He seems to be emerging from the shadows, light beginning to hit one side of his face, the other cast into darkness. This about sums it all up. This man has been through hell, but hes made it this far, and hes not finished yet.
Electricity hammered me through my head/till nothing at all is backward instead/but it does not die/no one dies again/and may he live/blow the wind he sings in the middle of Aint Blues Too Sad, one of the only direct references to some of the stuff hes seen (the man underwent electro convulsive therapy multiple times). If nothing else, Ericksons voice carries with it the feeling of helplessness that only the most troubled do. As he pleads, begs, and bids farewell, you can hear his past as it rolls off of his tongue. Even on the brighter tracks, you can feel the pain. The vocals vary between neo-old-time country swoon and full-on vulnerability (think a freakier Bill Callahan mixed with a rougher John Prine). Its strange to think he helped lay the groundwork for psychedelic rock, because he sounds like he could just as well have won Jeff Bridges an Oscar.
Though the man is surely not the happiest out there, his head isnt staring at his feet for the whole time. Essentially, the 12-song collection seesaws between Ericksons truly idealistic desires and his most deeply defeated anthems. The albums title track is an example of the former. In this mans perfect world, True Love Cast Out All Evil. The track list alone displays the nature of the songs. He hopes everyone will Be and Bring [him] Home, he will Bring Back the Past, and so on. Hes got his chin up to a certain extent, but its clear he didnt assume the position with ease. The records easy standout and single, Goodbye Sweet Dreams, is an example of the latter. The most Okkervilian of tracks on here sees Erickson waving goodbye to any semblance of happiness in his life, whether in reality or in his dreams. Hes defeated one second, but ready to look at the bright side the next. Guess it makes sense given the fact that hes, you know, insane.
But with the music and production of Mr. Will Sheff and co. wrapping around every lyric, his sorrows and naÃ¯ve desires sound pretty tame and orderly. The albums pristine production and musicianship add some depth and groundwork to what might otherwise be fairly flat narratives. Its that sort of Black Sheep Boy-era electrified folk warble meets deconstructive folk that Sheff likes so much. The dark organs, the shining acoustic guitars, the electric solos, the metal squeals, theyre all here. It seems to suit Erickson well, without overpowering him in the slightest. As a backing band, you cant really ask for anything more.
The sets first track is perhaps the most powerful one on here; a thesis of sorts. It sounds like a field recording excavated from piles of dust; tape crackling as Ericksons cheery-yet-eerie voice croons somewhat nonsensically about Jesus and Moses. The archival soon joins forces with clean, dark piano and lush stringsno doubt introducing how Sheff is going to help bring these songs to life. It sounds like Okkervil River, sure, but not in that overpowering Oh, Okkervil River produced and backed this album way. As an introduction, it sets the scene perfectly. Heres this crazy man singing, heres Okkervil River, lets get to work. The same technique closes the album. This time it’s as if Okkervil River opens the car door and leaves Erickson alone to his demons. They could only get him this far, but he’s come a long way. In the end, were left with a record that does about as good a job as any strange collaboration of this nature. It’s fascinating to hear due to the back story, but not only for that. It’s no masterpiece, no classic, just a record thats down right good and grows with each listen.