Never Home

Freedy Johnston

Elektra, 1997

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


[Adapted from a review originally appearing in On The Town magazine on March 18, 1997]

Words like "cult favorite" and "critic's pick" always leave me feeling just a little bit wary. Sometimes the performer really is an overlooked genius—history is littered with them, to be sure. But many an unheralded gem has, upon further consideration, turned out to be a performer whose limited success has less to do with the public's awful taste than with significant flaws the critics have willfully overlooked in the process of flexing their intellectual superiority.

My first impression of Freedy Johnston, critic's darling (1994 Rolling Stone Songwriter of the Year, without benefit of a single hit song or album), was unfortunately the latter. The hard truth is, Johnston doesn't have much of a voice, nor a huge amount of skill as a singer. In terms of sound, his high, fragile vocals fall somewhere between Crowded House's Neil Finn (without the strength Finn wields to build potent melodies) and Neil Young (without the raw edges Young exercises to make his voice interesting). It's hard to get past a voice like that, even when you've got a superstar band backing you up (my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Never Home features producer/guitarist Danny Kortchmar of Don Henley and James Taylor fame; bassist Graham Maby, a crack Joe Jackson sideman; and Stan Lynch, the recently departed drummer from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers).

The secret, as any die-hard John Hiatt fan (e.g. me) will tell you, is to write songs that are so original and intriguing and well-crafted that the rest of the package suddenly becomes a lot less important—which is exactly what Johnston proceeds to do. Songs like the rocking "On The Way Out" are appealing melodically even as the lyrics remain willfully ambiguous; it's not until the second time through that you realize the narrator isn't some kind of street philosopher, but rather a particularly bright-eyed shoplifter walking you through his day. Johnston conjures up all manner of odd perspectives and witty lyrical approaches over the crisp melodies of "I'm Not Hypnotized" (an acerbic put-down of a would-be romantic partner), the dark acoustic rhythms of "Gone To See The Fire" (perhaps the best song ever written about an arsonist with a suspicious girlfriend... perhaps the only one, too) and the slow-building retro-melancholy of "Seventies Girl" (a quiet and much-deserved critique of tie-dyes, flared jeans and the mindset they still sometimes bring on). Overall, it's a remarkably engaging collection of profiles in obsessive-compulsive behavior.

At the close Johnston even manages to tweak the X-Files' motto/gestalt ("The Truth Is Out There") into a sunny paean to alien abduction in "Something's Out There." Pulling this kind of thing off—and doing it consistently, song after song— is a gift that, while not exactly mainstream, is bound to draw the admiring stares of writers and creative people everywhere. So go ahead, Freedy, put another notch on your notepad—I'm just one more critic who's fallen under your spell.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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