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Roky Erickson with Okkervil River – True Love Cast Out All Evil

on April 13, 2010, 8:14am

At a glance, it’s another convenient marketing ploy: Roky Erikson – psychedelic, lo-fi, proto-rock pioneer and leader of the 13th Floor Elevators—reemerges from decades of instability, institutionalization, and criminal insanity charges to release his first album in 14 years. Backing him is a band that’s constantly buzzed about but still hasn’t been propelled to full-on stardom, the always-promising Okkervil River. It’s a great recipe for goodness and has the rare story every PR company would give anything to have fall in their lap. Seriously, who isn’t going to want to hear a mentally unstable legend team up with one of alt-country’s most intriguing forces? The press release writes itself.

But there’s something different about this one. Sure, the story is a plus for record sales, but it’s not all there is. Like the work of Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, and other great crazies, this doesn’t feel like just an exaggerated marketing scheme.

On the cover of True Love Cast out all Evil, Roky Erickson stares out at us. It’s one of those stares that appears to contain every emotion from the spectrum at once. It’s got all the wonderment of a child, and all the wear and tear of a man who’s been through all the things Roky Erikson has. His eyes look as if they’re 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 he’s made it this far, and he’s 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 “Ain’t Blues Too Sad”, one of the only direct references to some of the stuff he’s seen (the man underwent electro convulsive therapy multiple times). If nothing else, Erickson’s 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). It’s 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 isn’t staring at his feet for the whole time. Essentially, the 12-song collection seesaws between Erickson’s truly idealistic desires and his most deeply defeated anthems. The album’s title track is an example of the former. In this man’s 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. He’s got his chin up to a certain extent, but it’s clear he didn’t assume the position with ease. The record’s 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. He’s defeated one second, but ready to look at the bright side the next.  Guess it makes sense given the fact that he’s, you know, insane.

But with the music and production of Mr. Will Sheff and co. wrapping around every lyric, his sorrows and naïve desires sound pretty tame and orderly. The album’s pristine production and musicianship add some depth and groundwork to what might otherwise be fairly flat narratives. It’s 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, they’re all here. It seems to suit Erickson well, without overpowering him in the slightest. As a backing band, you can’t really ask for anything more.

The set’s 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 Erickson’s cheery-yet-eerie voice croons somewhat nonsensically about Jesus and Moses. The archival soon joins forces with clean, dark piano and lush strings—no 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. Here’s this crazy man singing, here’s Okkervil River, let’s 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, we’re 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 that’s down right good and grows with each listen.