ALBUM REVIEW: “True Love Cast Out All Evil” — Roky Erickson with Okkervil River(Anti-)

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River: "True Love Cast Out All Evil" is his redemption song. Photo: Todd Wolfson/Anti-

Roger Kynard Erickson of Austin, Texas, stands alongside Brian Wilson as rock’n’roll’s best, most heartwarming reclamation projects. His tale, from early success to prolonged personal hell to something closely resembling redemption, has been at least as harrowing as, if not more than, Wilson’s.

And, like Brian, who returned to touring and then eventually faced his past in the recording studio and at long last finished his “Smile” album, Roky returned to the stage, then eventually stared down his past in the studio. In this case, he came face to face last year with a pile of songs he wrote in the early ’70s while incarcerated at Texas’ infamous Rusk State Hospital.

These songs formed the core of his surprising and revelatory first album in 15 years, “True Love Cast Out All Evil.” And with the help of his pals in Austin alt-country band Okkervil River, Erickson has shown a side of him that his fans haven’t seen before — a side of peace and contentment. A side of triumph.

Much has happened between albums. To catch up …

Keven McAlester’s superb 2005 documentary “You’re Gonna Miss Me” — title taken from Roky’s signature song with his pioneering ’60s psychedelic band, The 13th Floor Elevators — chronicled a disheveled, bearded, bloated, schizophrenic wreck. At the time, he was living in a wretched dump of a suburban housing project, visited often by his slightly off-kilter and deeply religious mother, collecting junk mail, sleeping with all his TVs and radios set to maximum white noise — living with the inner world of ghosts, demons and aliens that had formed the core of his music the previous three decades.

It was a world forged by drugs, then a fateful decision, then abuse and mental illness. Arrested on a pot possession charge, Erickson chose to avoid prison and entered a state hospital in 1969. After some escape attempts, he ended up at Rusk, a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane, where he was subjected to shock treatment. Once on the outside again in the mid-’70s, he descended into his schizophrenia, occasionally resurfacing to record songs that exposed some of his inner torture.

The documentary began in 2001 with the court hearing where his younger brother Sumner, then the principal tubaist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, petitioned to obtain legal custody of him from their mother in the hope of getting help for him. Once far removed from his dysfunctional family in Texas, Roky gradually confronted his demons, and by the film’s end, both the story and its protagonist had been transformed from harrowing to heartwarming.

And likewise, the post-film story has a huge happy-ending quality to it, except that it’s far from over. Erickson, now 62, from all appearances has something much more closely resembling a normal life these days. He’s back with his first wife and reconnected with their son, he’s driving, he just bought his first house, and he’s playing and touring quite a bit. And he kicks ass on stage — I saw him at Southpaw in Brooklyn New Year’s night (with my faves, The Fleshtones, opening), and he and the band were more than up to the packed, sweaty and alcohol-fueled setting.

The gusto with which he played his old tunes so recently is one of the reasons “True Love Cast Out All Evil” is such a surprise. Not that I was expecting a rehash of “Creature With the Atom Brain” or “If You Have Ghosts” — I actually didn’t know what to expect from the new, improved, happy Roky. But this is not what I didn’t expect.

Playing with Okkervil River, with whom he first collaborated at the 2008 Austin Music Awards, has brought out the introspection in the songs he scrawled while hospitalized.

I’ll admit to having a two-headed dog of an opinion about the disc early on. The head that digs visceral and high-energy rock’n’roll (and has been immersed in punk and garage/psych most of my life) has been thinking maybe Roky was steered into doing a mostly “Americana”-format version of his music, to be marketed to yuppies who have forgotten how to rock in their middle age. But after many listens over the past few days, the more cerebral head says Okkervil leader Will Sheff, who produced the album, did the right thing. The songs are aggressive when they need be, muted when necessary, with just the right touches to, as the title implies, confront and cast out the long-seated demons.

The closest the album comes to the hard delivery of Erickson’s past three decades, his one brush with horror-movie brutality, is the feedback-driven “John Lawman,” who kills people all day long. “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” quickly sheds its gentle, guitar-picking-and-piano intro to a grind of regret and despair, albeit one propelled by a potent pop hook. On the rock’n’roll side, “Bring Back the Past” also relies on a strong hook, along with loud twanging and a punchy rhythm straight out of a mid-’80s Green on Red record.

But the disc is alpha-and-omegaed by two extremely spiritual moments, both field recordings from his hospital days, which set the overall tone. “Devotional Number One” combines Jesus, Moses and hallucinogens, with an increasing crush of white noise edited in at the end; “God Is Everywhere,” mixes in recordings of chirping birds to provide even more spiritual uplift, then a swell of strings midway through to carry the album to its end on a beautiful note.

“Ain’t Blues Too Sad,” while barebones in sound, has a gospel feel. So does “Forever,” which swells as beautifully and sweetly, a blooming spring flower of a tune. And the stellar “Think Of As One” could easily have come from the early-’70s world of Willie Mitchell and The Memphis Horns and Hi Records.

The most riveting and poignant moment on the album has to be “Please, Judge,” written at the depths of Rocky’s hospitalization. It’s a resigned, weary but desperate plea for release from his situation (“It sure would make him smile”), sung gently over a muted organ and piano — which erupts into a sea of white noise in the bridge and then jump-cuts back to placidity. It’s a plea for release from both his physical incarceration and the noisy world he’d been sentenced to inside his head.

The one quality that soars above all in Roky Erickson’s music, be it delivered on a psychedelic, punk or alt-country platter, is its honesty. There are seemingly no filters between the voices in his head and heart and the voice that comes from the larynx. Everything in his music comes from a real place — probably no more so than the tunes culled for “True Love Cast Out All Evil.” He wrote many of these songs at some of the most painful times of his life, and for him to be able to go back decades later, face the music and then turn it into something rewarding, redeeming and positive — well, rock’n’roll has never seen a better exorcism ritual.

BTW: The lone bitch-and-moan note, to the graphic artist who designed the album package: Scrawl writing in white, in about 6-point type, on a matte black background is nearly indecipherable. So is a book of lyrics and profound text set in 4-point type. Please buy a clue for future reference. We shouldn’t need magnifying glasses.

If you have an album you think should be reviewed, or know of one — and it has to be available in CD format — email me at franoramaworld@gmail.com. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.

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4 Responses to “ALBUM REVIEW: “True Love Cast Out All Evil” — Roky Erickson with Okkervil River(Anti-)”

  1. Margaret Moser Says:

    “Playing with Okkervil River, with whom he first collaborated at the 1998 Austin Music Awards…” You’ll want to correct this to the 2008 Austin Music Awards. Roky was in a different place in 1998 and Okkervil didn’t exist 🙂

    • franoramaworld Says:

      Yikes! My first factual error of note so far and I’m called out by one of the best music/culture writers in Austin. (I’ll blame it on the switch to decaf last night, or a different blonde wig, or something.) I’m embarrassed and humbled but grateful for the drop-in. Correction made. Thanks, Margaret.

      BTW: I enjoy your writing and I’m glad to see the Tornados are still at it … I’m including a link to your Chronicle archive so my friends can dig as well: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Archive/author?oid=oid%3A73751.

  2. ALBUM REVIEW: “Together” — The New Pornographers (Matador) « Franorama World Says:

    […] The opening song, “Moves,” lives up to its name and sets the pace. It twists and warps and taffy-pulls the Chicago “25 or 6 to 4″ guitar intro, then quickly shifts to a contemporary R&B/hip-hop piano staccato into a Jeff Lynneish pop melody with strings and dense, dancing vocal harmonies. The structure of the song remains solid, but with all these musical particles dancing around it (including backing vocals by Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, who’s been getting a lot of notice of late). […]

  3. ALBUM REVIEW: “Purity of Essence” — Hoodoo Gurus (Hoodoo Gurus Records) « Franorama World Says:

    […] bitch-and-moan note, and it’s something I ranted about in the review of the Roky Erickson/Okkervil River album, too: Do graphic artists have much better eyes than the rest of us that they can get away […]

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