Calvin Johnson, at this point, is truly one of the elder statesmen of independent underground music. Hailing from Olympia, Washington, Johnson founded his own label K Records in the early 1980s, creating an “international pop underground,” a self-sufficient network of musicians, artists and writers. Through his label and his bands, Johnson has been emblematic of the punk DIY ethos, always maintaining the independent approach to music and favouring raw energy, creativity and chaos over instrumental virtuosity while foregoing any major label influence.
Perhaps his best known musical outlet was Beat Happening, a group that personified the genre of twee pop with often dark, loss-of-innocence lyrical themes over sunny, innocent, often minimal instrumental backing, who during their existence gained the admiration of Kurt Cobain. However, over the years, he has also explored dance music with Dub Narcotic Sound System, Leonard Cohen-esque folk with his first solo record What Was Me (2000), as well as collaborating with the likes of Modest Mouse, Beck and Doug Martsch of Built To Spill.
For A Wonderful Beast, his first album under his own name since 2007’s Sons of Soil, Johnson teamed up with The Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney, who handles production duties and much of the instrumentation. Carney’s input gives the album a comparatively more straightforward ‘rock’ feel than many of Johnson’s previous efforts, with many of the songs driven by crunchy, fuzzy electric guitar. Production-wise, the album sounds fairly compressed, with everything packed tightly upfront, but still with a sense of space that is brought out partially by a watery keyboard backing. For the most part, the instrumentation is solid but not exceptional. But the main focus here is definitely Johnson’s typically somewhat eccentric, sometimes humorous words and delivery. There are some more eclectic instrument choices at times, like the melodica punctuating every line of “Are We Ready”, while “When The Weekend Comes Around” is based around a tight dance beat that recalls his work with Dub Narcotic Sound System.
And speaking of Johnson himself, he remains as eccentric and offbeat as ever. While his trademark baritone may not be for everyone, his ever-curious and fervent delivery and mid-song exclamations often make the songs worth it alone, even when you don’t really know what he’s singing about. On occasion, it sounds as if his lyrics are partially improvised, like when he goes off-time towards the end of the title track, rambling on and fluctuating his voice.
He resembles some kind of preacher or well-adored public figure on “Like You Do”, managing to make the phrase “loving me like you do,” not sound narcissistic. “Bubbles, Clouds and Rainbows” may be the record’s most optimistic song as he commands, “go really go! Everybody on your feet!” amid some slightly flowery but earnest descriptions of “our bubble.” And he repeats what appears to be an odd political message with “Alt-Right, click delete,” doubling as a computer keyboard shortcut, but that song’s best moments come after that, when it opens up as Johnson sings, “we sigh,” over some soaring pedal steel – evocative of flying over sweeping landscapes.
Even some of the less compelling songs have something distinct about them thanks to Johnson’s character, as he rattles off a plethora of desserts on “Why You Crying”, punctuated with “mmm mmmm”s – really the most worthwhile part of the song and maybe one of the funniest moments on the album. Or on “Wherefore Art Thou”, where he recounts the story of Romeo and Juliet, prior to their meeting, in a way perhaps only he can. And it would be amiss not to mention opener “Kiss Me Sweetly”, which sets the scene with a busy, uptempo fuzz rock tune with those watery synths colouring in the spaces, as Johnson sings about slowing down and letting love and affection douse the flames of the everyday runaround.
Finally, the album draws to a close on a slightly melancholy, resigned note in “(I’ve Still Got) Sand In My Shoes” which has a pleasantly lazy feel, like the hot sun going down over the beach, as his voice sounds relatively more muted and meek. His message is somewhat difficult to discern, but going by the title phrase and some of the lyrics, it seems he may be saying that no matter how hard we might try, we all may end up getting hurt in the end. A somewhat pessimistic but accepting message to conclude the album.
Though it’s difficult to pick an individual highlight as almost each song seems to have something distinct about it, all in all, it may just be the title track, “A Wonderful Beast” that proves most effective. Johnson takes a fairytale approach, going into great detail about a mystical, beastly creature. He remains in awe and admiration as he describes this beast, risking crossing over into the whimsical, but ensures it never does through his somewhat surreal, verbose descriptions of this beast, the full nature of which we never quite know. Perhaps the best moments of the song come when the synth chords hang suspended with those creeping guitar runs over it, really emphasising the surrealistic, majestic feeling of the song.
In A Wonderful Beast, Calvin Johnson has delivered a record that puts his distinctive songwriting style through a somewhat more straightforward rock template than much of his previous work. Lyrically and vocally, he remains intriguing as ever as he runs through themes both worldly and surrealistic. Patrick Carney’s input gives the album a tight, somewhat urgent feel overall, and even if one cannot get acclimated to Johnson’s deep hum of a voice, the record remains a mildly entertaining listen more or less the whole way through.
A Wonderful Beast is released Friday 12th October via K Records.