I’ve long believed that songs about love and lust — or whatever variation thereof you have in mind — are generally their best at their most direct. No matter how ugly the results when unveiled, they’re definitely more interesting to look at than when they’re disguised by flowery prose. Half of A Drunkard’s Masterpiece, Johnny Dowd’s ninth studio album, seems to condone this “rip the band-aid off” philosophy, while the other half relies on hyperbolic surrealism to get its point across. The seeming opposition of the two ideas would make the album an interesting curio even if Dowd and his band didn’t do such a fantastic job of blending the two ideas together, musically as well as lyrically. Throw that bit into the equation and you’ve got an “album of the year” contender.
Johnny Dowd’s been kicking around in various small-time bands since the late ’70s, but since his first solo outing (1998’s The Wrong Side of Memphis), he’s carved a rather unique sound. His band has been slowly working towards an odd variation of Captain Beefheart’s fucked-up blues-rock, using old-style organ tones to anchor the rhythm section. Dowd often goes for broke with fierce shredding that’s never too over-the-top, with a voice made of equal parts Tom Waits and Mark E. Smith. On recent albums he’s added Kim Sheerwood-Caso, who does the lion’s share of the vocal work. She’s a much more limited vocalist than Dowd, but her lack of affect manages to work well with the material she’s given.
A Drunkard’s Masterpiece, structured like a long story rather than multiple short vignettes, features Dowd and Sheerwood-Caso as opposing parties in a dysfunctional set of adulterous relations, slowly realizing that there’s no going back to whatever stability existed before. It’s a well-worn story - at various times I considered it to be the ideal starting material for a sequel to Francis Ford Copolla's One From the Heart - and the theme isn’t twisted in any innovative way here. There’s something, however, about how Dowd and his cohorts present it, shifting seamlessly between gothic moodiness to rollicking blues-rock, between the serious and the ridiculous, between all the perspectives a tale like this needs, without hitting you over the head with what exactly they’re doing.
It may look pretty nondescript on paper, but in practice the way the elements converge is remarkable. Take album highlight “Infidelity / Gargon vs. The Unicorn.” Dowd and Sheerwood-Caso trade increasingly implausible scenarios in which they’d forgive each other’s infidelity; the strong organ-based motif slowly cedes to Dowd’s increasingly erratic soloing as the scenarios get more demented and absurd. The way the music mirrors the intensity of the lyrics throughout the album is one of the nicer touches, especially here, where you’ve basically got both a thematic and sonic summation of the album in about seven minutes.
There’s the occasional tangent (like the cautionary tale “Easy Money”), but the whole thing manages to be relatively streamlined, despite its nearly 70-minute running time. It’s the big moments — the epic surreal argument of “Infidelity / Gargon vs. The Unicorn,” the lonely lament of “Adulteress,” and the moody place-setting of “Danger / The Blind Painter Paints Black” — that are perfectly executed, bringing the whole album up to a level of greatness. There are no wasted moments, either: even the five-minute exercise in booty worshipping “Caboose” is a lot of fun, out of left field as it is. To top it all off, Dowd’s lyrics are as good as they’ve ever been, leavening the bleak moments with a healthy dose of surreal comedy.
It’s an acquired taste, to be sure: if you’re averse to Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart, this probably isn’t gonna be your cup of tea. But, if you like your blues twisted and bitter, this could work its charms on you pretty easily.