A Year in the Wilderness

Last year when John Doe released Tomorrow Hasn’t Happened Yet many critics called it the best solo work of his career. Indeed it was a grand collection of thoughtful ballads and smarting rockers. How to top that must have been on Doe’s mind – or maybe not. If Doe’s goal was to impress critics and one-up himself he might have stopped making music a long time ago.

Instead Doe returns this summer with A Year In the Wilderness and I, for one, think this disc holds his best solo work to date – and, yes, I’m looking forward to what comes next. John Doe has written dozens of great songs and helped establish the West Coast punk scene in the 1970’s as a founding member of the band X, changing the face of American rock music in the process. He could rest on his laurels if he wanted to without losing the esteem of rock historians but John Doe is a musician and writer who continues to mature and evolve and that is enough reason to keep on keeping on.

Doe’s motivation this time round seems to have included a deadline for his label. Still missing several songs Doe headed into the studio with a trusted group of musician friends and within two weeks recorded the disc.

Doe is the type of writer who is just as adept at writing mournful love dirges as power punk rockers that blasts their way to a fulfilling conclusion in two minutes. That in itself is a rarity. But what really separates Doe from the pack is his talent as a lyricist. He is revealing without being self conscious. He doesn’t have to spell out every emotion; his music and phrasing fill in anything left unsaid. Doe’s choice of language is selective and graphically poetic. His description of a spectral lover in “Hotel Ghost” literally climbs inside the ghost’s erotic ectoplasm. Dave Alvin’s guitar ramrods right through the center of the piece and barely leaves you time to catch your breath by song’s end. Alvin plays guitar on two other tracks including the sweet father-to daughter ballad “A Little More Time.”

Doe’s early career was built around his work with X member and former wife, Exene Cervenka. It was their shared songwriting and duets that caught the ear of the public. Cervenka co-wrote “Darling Underdog” with Doe but Jill Sobule steps in to offer the female counterpoint to Doe’s hard-hewn vocals. Doe also sings with Aimee Mann but the best duets on the record feature Kathleen Edwards, especially on “The Golden State.” Edwards voice, with it’s prairie flatness and dry wit, is the perfect match for Doe’s wry world outlook.

It’s a shame that Doe hasn’t gained a larger audience for his brand of venom-mixed love songs, his bruising alt-country rockers and for his keen intellect. It’s a fact that John Doe has lived with for a long time but it doesn’t stop him from writing and recording records that seem to get better with every passing year.

Rosemary Welsch, WYEP Afternoon Mix host