John Doe — Fables in a Foreign Land
by Mark Pelavin[i]
When Neil Young proclaimed that “it’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” those indeed seemed like the two choices artists had. Many burnt out, or died, or disappeared. And more than a few choose to rust, staying in the same place they had always been, playing the same, old songs for the same, always older, audience.
LA punk pioneers X, and especially their iconic and iconoclastic bassist John Doe, have managed to chart a third path – rather then burning out or rusting, they have taken on the far harder challenge of evolving. Still playing together more than 40 years after their landmark debut album, Doe and X, individually and collectively, have never been anything less than authentic, and never anything other than interesting.
Doe’s powerful new album, Fables in a Foreign Land, finds him diving deeper into the country/folk tradition. Even the subject matter – Fables is a concept album about a journey and searching for freedom (of many kinds) in the pre-industrial 1890’s — traditionally belongs more to singer-songwriters than to punks. None of that would matter if the songs were not compelling as they are.
Fair warning: Fables covers some dark territory and is packed with images of blood and death. I doubt it will be blaring from radios on the beach this summer. The album, Doe says “began with an image, that came to me, of someone standing among waterreeds while seeing their own blood dripping into the creek.” In less talented hands, this might be a just a relentlessly sad collection of story songs. But three things save it from that fate.
First, Doe’s voice. Doe has a gentle but compelling voice. He sounds like he looks: weathered, tired, wise and mysterious. And even at its most gloomy, Doe’s voice always has a touch of optimism. His belief in a better place – “I’m going where the birds sing all night long/They sing to the moon, sing midnight songs” he sings on the album-closing “Where the Songbirds Live” – can and does inspire us to believe along with him.
Second, the lyrics. It’s a cliché to compare singer-songwriters — especially older, white, male songwriters — to Dylan. But that is who Doe’s cryptic and evocative words (sample lyric: “Black and white feathers/blow across the lawn/the dog is sleeping on them/the scaffold is almost done”) most call to mind.
Third, the outstanding musicianship. Doe is joined here by Kevin Smith (on loan from Willie Nelson’s band) and Conrad Choucroun (who has played drums for pretty much every singer in Austin). They were recorded live in one room by producers Steve Berlin and Dave Way, and you can feel the depth of interaction among the three of them . There is not a lot of flashing soloing on Fables; the music serves the lyrics, making each song both distinctive and part of the whole.
Doe has given us an album that speaks to our current condition. It may be set in an America a century ago, but the themes of loss, alienation, loneliness, escape and survival in a challenging time are only too relevant today.