Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Freedy Johnston

  • The Trouble Tree [Bar/None, 1990] ***
  • Can You Fly [Bar/None, 1992] A+
  • Unlucky [Bar/None, 1993] **
  • This Perfect World [Elektra, 1994] ***
  • Never Home [Elektra, 1997] A-
  • Blue Days Black Nights [Elektra, 1999] *
  • Right Between the Promises [Elektra, 2001] *
  • The Way I Were [Bar/None, 2004] A-
  • Rain on the City [Bar/None, 2010] *
  • Neon Repairman [Singing Magnet, 2015] B+
  • Back on the Road to You [Forty Below, 2022] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Trouble Tree [Bar/None, 1990]
folk-postpunk Donald Fagen ("Tucumcari," "No Violins") ***

Can You Fly [Bar/None, 1992]
Defying the taste for tortured chaos that the triumph of Nirvana signifies, the Kansas-born Hoboken fixture is a case study in bringing confusion under control--in loving your life as beautiful mess. Contained, mature, realistic in philosophy and aesthetic, its every song a model of open-ended lyrical detail and lithe, sly melodicism, it's a flat-out monument of singer-songwriterdom--up there with Randy Newman's 12 Songs, Joni Mitchell's For the Roses, and other such prepunk artifacts. Johnston is modest in everything but his perfectionism, his rage repressed if that and his puzzlement so permanent it comes as naturally as breathing. The epiphanies he runs through his flat Midwestern inflections evoke a heartland miniaturist like Bobbie Ann Mason more than any rock artiste. Hitting the festival circuit with the ozone layer shot to hell, losing a daughter in Manhattan's concrete dreamscape, deconstructing a house and a marriage simultaneously, his oblique, decipherable tales of not quite getting it together are summed up by the title of the first: "Trying To Tell You I Don't Know." A+

Unlucky [Bar/None, 1993]
new producer, so it can't be good outtakes from a great album--can it? ("For a Lost Key") **

This Perfect World [Elektra, 1994]
trying to say what he can't sing, trying to drive with the green light on ("Bad Reputation," "Evie's Tears") ***

Never Home [Elektra, 1997]
When Billboard wondered whether Freedy could fill one of those solo-male chart niches left inexplicably vacant by Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams, the object of their affections had the artistic integrity to keep a straight face about it. He's a cardplayer--so committed to the mystery of the ordinary that you have to poke a stick beneath his placid, bland catchiness to glimpse the empathy and compulsion it conceals. With '70s studio hero Danny Kortchmar replacing the mismatched Butch Vig behind the board, Johnston not only regains his grace but spells it out--most of these lyrics tell a story suitable for paraphrasing. But he'll never be accessible to consumers who can only read a heart when it's bloodying a sleeve. Our blessing, his curse. A-

Blue Days Black Nights [Elektra, 1999]
Sinatra he's not--maybe not Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen either ("Depending on the Night," "Changed Your Mind"). *

Right Between the Promises [Elektra, 2001]
will never get the girl till he proves he believes in himself ("Waste Your Time," "That's Alright With Me") *

The Way I Were [Bar/None, 2004]
John Lennon gets to unveil a throwaway like "Oh Yoko" as the stroke it is. But can an unknown risk such a thing? Not if he craves respect. As it turns out, there are several such strokes among these demos, all preceding or circa 1989's overworked The Trouble Tree and 1992's fine-tuned Can You Fly. Johnston would never put the multi-tracked talkathon "Happy Birthday" or the folkie rave-up "Friend in the City" on a real album, but both achieve a fun his real albums avoid with no sacrifice in ambivalence or bite. And then there are great lost outtakes like "I Do, I Do," in which the excited suitor awaiting the delivery of his mail-order bride croons, "I'm the guy you're belonging to"--not, for instance, "I'm the guy you're longing for." Get somebody else to splice on the guitar-bass-drums and that would be a Can You Fly bonus track to remember. A-

Rain on the City [Bar/None, 2010]
Old wisdom, new chord structures ("Don't Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl," "What You Cannot See, You Cannot Fight"). *

Neon Repairman [Singing Magnet, 2015]
His best collection of songs in this century--clever in the service of a pensive compassion, the major exception being the guy who just kept driving when the cops caught up with that crazy gal Angeline. Feel the unadorned forlorn of "Baby, Baby Come Home." Hear how thin-shoed and pregnant outgrows her "Summer Clothes." Meet the veteran who didn't get blown up with his buddies but will you sign for this please because he left his hands back in that gutter. Not many dynamics--Can You Fly? is funky by comparison. But a lot of feeling and enough tune. B+

Back on the Road to You [Forty Below, 2022]
Unnoticed by anyone but connoisseurs and an all too compact fanbase, the 61-year-old Johnston continues to craft subtly melodic, insufficiently catchy tunes at a rate of just a few a year and match these tunes with lyrics that know the ins and outs of a love life that's imbued with thoughtful kindness but has trouble keeping on. Many of these are touching, a few compelling. In one of my favorites, he raises himself from a bartender's sleep to watch his newish sweetie take public transport to an office he's never seen and likely never will. In another, he puts a nephew and/or niece to bed after explaining how life and death work. Thus I hope the woman he thinks he glimpses in "Trick of the Light" didn't die and am sorry to report that he leaves that possibility open. B+

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