Monday, 14 June 2010

Can You Fly - Freedy johnston

There are few records that have ever been described as perfect. There are even less that have actually deserved such high praise. Can You Fly is one of the ones that does. Village Voice music editor Robert Christagau called the second album from New York based singer songwriter Freedy Johnston “a prefect album” and so far “Can You Fly” has marked a career peak which he has never quite equaled. That might sound like a relatively unfortunate circumstance for an artist to find himself in but its not as if Johnston hasn't gone on to do anything else of note. It’s just that, despite every later album of his containing some amazing songs, he never has replicated the complete feeling of this one. These songs belong together, on one record. It’s as simple as that. They each have their place on the album and they all fit perfectly.

Each track shares a similar trait in that they fully and completely set their own story. These songs conjure up such strong images. From the desolate highway of Wheels to the bustling streets of New York in Responsible each track's story is so well told that you can’t help but see it. The Morticians Daughter is possibly the most descriptive song on the album. Lines like “There’s a lonely dove out on the telephone wire” and “a ribbon, printed with last respects flowing down the gutter” work as both metaphor for the story about a lost love and to help create an atmosphere for that story. These tracks aren't just songs, they're movies. Johnston is a storyteller as much as he is a musician and his stories have an overriding theme. Loss. Each one of Johnston's protagonists has suffered some sort of damaging departure. Whether or not that loss is the main subject of the song varies but its there in all of them. In the very optimistic sounding The Lucky One, the main character's depletion of both self control and funds has left him wandering the streets wishing he could find a dollar so he can gamble it away. Tearing Down This Place deals with the fractured love between an unnamed couple, leading to despair and isolation and the eventual demolition of the home they built. Each individual track portrays a different scenario with this one theme connecting them. Having said this, the songs are not depressing or overly melancholy. There are strains of sadness throughout the album but Johnston never allows himself to wallow in misery and despair. The music that conveys these stories is often up-lifting and upbeat but never mismatched. The up-tempo feel of tracks like Tearing Down This Place and Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know don’t allow for any big, tragic romance. Johnston simply shakes his head, thinks for a second about what happened and gets on with what he needs to do. As he himself says, “We’ve got work tearing down this place”. Even the slower songs don’t lend themselves to overbearing emotion. They’re atmospheric, eerie even but not overdramatic.
It is a very American album. The songs span from coast to coast, describing character's having very different experiences in states on either side of the country and covering so much in between. Its perfect music to travel with, especially along big open roads. It is the soundtrack to a road trip. But it’s not just the lyrics that give this album its strong geographical sense. The instrumentation, construction and chord structures of these songs, though diverse, are undoubtedly western. Big, twangy electric guitars drenched in reverb, subtle, unobtrusive drums, the slow, cautiously optimistic organ in Down In Love and subtle acoustic guitars mark this as a country rock album, a genre that is starting to make somewhat of a comeback with acts such as Band Of Horses displaying obvious country influences in their music. Though Freedy Johnston can’t lay claim to be the first to make an alternative country album, he has been making good ones while no one was paying much attention.
I have a lot invested in this record. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and has always had pride of place in my record collection. I'm fairly sure that a good part of my love for this record is based upon the memories I have connected to it, but as my tastes have changed, matured and expanded, I still find myself coming back to this album and listening to it with the same passion I had for it when I was younger. Perhaps after 18 years, this album should finally be recognised as the masterpiece it is. It's long since been out of print so don't expect finding it to be easy, though I strongly suggest you put as much time and energy into the search as you can. It's worth it.

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