Roky Erickson with Okkervil River

True Love Cast Out All Evil

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Label: Anti-

Roky Erickson, patron saint of Austin Weirdness, has maintained a low profile in pop culture for so many years, but it was inevitable that he would escape cult status. He is a classic shadow box artist; with such limited recorded output and a backstory that Nick Cave or Tom Waits, themselves prominent residents in the tower of song, could only imagine, Erickson’s uncanny voice- both literally and figuratively, as a songwriter- and relatively scant material have been bits of obscure pop culture so skeletal in their tangibility, that music obsessives are wont to flesh out the mystique for themselves, filling out Erickson’s lack of ubiquity with whatever they want to, becoming awfully possessive in the process.

The Roky Erickson I fell for, years ago, was the crazy-eyed rocker of 1981’s The Evil One, the Stu Cook-produced album whose lyrics were stalked by b-movie creatures, haunted by Luciferian visions and whose rough-and-tumble riffs sounded like some alternate reality’s early-’80s A.O.R. playlist, perfect for night drives on dark, rural roads. Others still prefer the unhinged, howling Roky of the seminal psych rock upstarts, the 13th Floor Elevators; it was unspeakably perfect that “You’re Gonna Miss Me” should play during the opening moments of High Fidelity. In partnering with indie Americana darlings Okkervil River for his first album of newly-recorded material since 1995’s ragged All That May Do My Rhyme, Erickson lets us in on the latest triumphant chapter in his tragic life. The particulars of his long torment need not be rehashed here; producer, arranger and Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, in True Love Cast Out All Evil’s liners, provides the most detailed and heartbreaking writing yet on Roky’s mental illness, imprisonment at Rusk and subsequent phases of varying degrees of “with it-ness.”

Though, in spite of Erickson’s dramatic recent turnaround, including his marriage to longtime partner Dana and the purchase of his first-ever home, Roky is not the artist he once was, meaning True Love is, through and through, Will Sheff’s Roky Erickson. Firstly, Sheff selected 12 songs from Erickson’s opus that had never seen official release and his picks leave something to be desired. Knowing that “Before in the Beginning” or “Can’t Be Brought Down” will continue to languish in obscurity, while scratchy mental institution-recordings of “Devotional Number One” or “God is Everywhere” are released as dramatic bookends and complete tracks doesn’t sit right with this listener. I don’t think anyone needed another version of Roky’s maudlin “Please Judge,” either, where Sheff overplays his hand, choosing to include the actual recorded sound of several TVs and radios blaring in Erickson’s old section eight flat (used by the artist to drown out auditory hallucinations), one of a handful of “actual recordings” used by Sheff for dubious dramatic effect.

If Erickson’s work with the 13th Floor Elevators was characterized by psychedelic, jug-blowing abandon amid moments of childlike emotional clarity and his later occult-themed hard rock’s strengths was in the way the tight band interplay (no small debt due to lead guitarist Duane Aslaksen) engendered an unsteady musical tension, making it impossible to shrug off Erickson’s lyrics as cheap exploitation, Sheff’s arrangements for Erickson’s songs largely deflate what draws listeners to the man in the first place. Erickson’s vocal performances, as warm and genuine as they can be, are planted front, center and po-faced in a sea of adult contemporary Americana. True Love seems unwilling, perhaps out of fear of exploitation, to acknowledge Erickson’s lyrical weirdness. “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” comes the closest to capturing the late-night menace of the Aliens’ songs, though Erickson’s lyrical mention of a pentagram seems wildly out of place on the record, while, elsewhere, the ricocheting echoes of Erickson’s voice on “John Lawman,” a sketch of a song that should have remained as such, give the feeling Sheff’s trying too hard to be creepy.

Ultimately, this is not an ideal introduction to Erickson for newcomers, nor is it especially satisfying for longtime fans. There is something to be said for hearing a lucid Erickson sing well-produced, original material and there is certainly something to be said for the man actually earning royalties on music released under his name, for once. Upon each additional listen, it’s clear that True Love Cast Out All Evil is Will Sheff’s own shadow-boxed Roky Erickson, one that, as much as I try, just doesn’t sound all that interesting, even as Erickson’s heartwarming vocalizations haunt the room like a ghost, long after a song’s done.

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