By John Doe’s reckoning, there’s a lot going on on “The Westerner,” his first studio release in five years. He’s labeled it a “psychedelic soul record from the Arizona desert” and dedicated it to his longtime friend, the author and Native American rights advocate Michael Blake, who passed away as Doe was making the record. Doe has said that many of its songs are about Blake, or use him as their main character; he also says that it’s about freedom and open space, the West, and the original peoples of the West, wild horses, and the Doors.
You can speculate as you listen about how and where all of these strands, themes, and influences manifest themselves in the songs. What’s more certain is that “The Westerner” reconnoiters musical terrain that Doe has been wandering for nearly 40 years now, while taking new inspiration from the desert locale in which he made it. Spanish guitar works the latter effect on “Sunlight,” as does the gorgeous, spacey desert noir of the Exene Cervenka song “Alone in Arizona.” The Diddley-beat blues “My Darling, Blue Skies” brings to mind X in both its musical careen and its off-kilter lyrics; “Go, Baby, Go,” which pairs Doe with Debbie Harry, also deploys
X’s fabled ability to bring the rock ’n’ roll not by going full-tilt, but rather by throttling back just a bit.
“Drink of Water,” one of two songs featuring Doe’s touring partner-in-harmony, Cindy Wasserman, offers the muscular electric-roots music typical of Doe’s solo work; “A Little Help” shows his singer-songwriter side. As for “Sweet Reward,” a marvelous moment-in-time narrative sketch delivered by the murmur of Doe’s voice, and “Rising Sun,” where a reverberating guitar line gives way to a singer sounding like a Sonoran Sinatra amid the song’s slow, swirling rise and fall — at moments such as those, Doe simply is making some of the most striking music of his career.
ESSENTIAL “Sweet Reward“
John Doe performs at Atwood’s Tavern June 12 and 13.Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.