Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Never Home
In 1992, defying the taste for tortured chaos the triumph of Nirvana signified, Freedy Johnston released the best album he'll ever make in his life. Contained, mature, realistic in philosophy and aesthetic, its every goddamned song a keeper, Can You Fly was a flat-out monument of singer-songwriterdom--up there with Randy Newman's 12 Songs, Joni Mitchell's For the Roses, and other such prepunk artifacts. The Kansas-born Hoboken fixture is modest in everything but his perfectionism, his rage repressed if that and his confusion a puzzlement so permanent it comes as naturally as breathing. His epiphanies evoke a heartland miniaturist like Bobbie Ann Mason more than any rock artiste. And though he's all for fast and loud--he's been known to front a punky Embarrassment tribute band--his '70s-style studio rock definitely won't scare Metallica into changing their hairdos again.

Can You Fly got him a major-label deal, naturally, and almost as naturally, 1994's This Perfect World sounded a little stiff, too conscious of its commercial destiny. So I'm relieved to report that on Never Home, Johnston's matched gifts for the memorable tune, the telling phrase, and the painful situation all reassert themselves. New producer Danny Kortchmar, who goes back to Carole King and James Taylor, is an impeccably catchy studio guitarist better-suited to Johnston's sensibility than This Perfect World's Butch Vig. Not every song is a keeper, but more than half are, and nothing goes by without waving hello.

Always partial to the representational, Johnston has gotten more literal as he's mastered his craft--"On the Way Out" is really about a shoplifter, "Western Skies" really about a pilot's son who won't take the plane because his dad died in one. Significantly, though, "Western Skies" is also about a warm, strong marriage. Since like all his colleagues Johnston keeps returning to the theme of troubled love, give him credit for making sure that not every relationship he writes about is merely doomed. On "He Wasn't Murdered" a guy who walks out ends up calling home; in "Seventies Girl" a guy who's hanging in there is determined to quench that old flame; in "Gone To See the Fire" a gal hasn't left that pyromaniac yet, although she probably will (and should). And "If It's True" is a heartbreaker. The story of a pregnancy scare that could go any which way, it's jam-packed with enough emotion and uncertainty to convince any reasonable tortured teen that singer-songwriters have their place after all.

Spin, Mar. 1997