From what I’ve read in articles and interviews, there is little doubt in my mind that Roky Erickson is legitimately batshit crazy. Not like the amusing/annoying kind of crazy where he believes the internet is a government conspiracy (looking at you, M.I.A.) or doesn’t believe in the germ theory of disease (Bill Maher and a whole host of other celebrities whose scientific credentials make me look like Albert fucking Einstein), but the kind of crazy where the circuitry is definitely damaged, where thoughts disconnect just enough to make you simultaneously uncomfortable and deeply grateful that your mental processes seem to proceed smoothly enough from one moment to the next. That is, Erickson is not funny crazy, he’s “show some fucking compassion” crazy. Dude’s life story is equal parts Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and that would have anyone trippin’ balls for all eternity.
Erickson’s life has apparently reached a modicum of stability in the last couple of years – he’s married and living in Austin, Texas, a place Patton Oswalt once called “a little bubble of sanity” in the middle of a bunch of bullshit (I’m paraphrasing, but the joke is all Oswalt’s – some horrible asshole recently stole a bunch of Patton’s act, so I want to be extra kind about crediting the man with the stuff he came up with. Patton Oswalt is funnier than I am, he’s funnier than you are, and we should just trust that his funny is better than ours), which may or may not be ironic since it has been Erickson’s home for most (if not all) of his life. Which is kinda cool, since Erickson is exactly the sort of mad local legend I’d want in my neighborhood (Van Nuys doesn’t have local legends – we need the space for our 24 hour bail bond places).
Erickson was joined on stage by Okkervil River for a gig in 2008 that led to the band backing Erickson up on this year’s True Love Cast Out All Evil, which Okkervil vocalist/songwriter Will Sheff also produced. The album is widely understood to be Erickson’s masterful, redemptive comeback album, which can sometimes be a bad thing (Bad Brains made a sort of “comeback” album a few years ago that wasn’t great, for instance.) but Erickson’s heartache is genuine and his love is about as hard-won as it can get.
I mentioned all the stuff about his mental health earlier because I believe it’s crucial to your understanding of True Love Cast Out All Evil, which sounds like a series of flashbacks into Roky Erickson’s deeply troubled past, interspersed with musings on love and death that are downright stunning. The feedback and noise (something I guess Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators were into back in the 1960s, though I’ve never listened to them) throughout the album is never obtrusive, but its presence creates some of the chaos and tension that I have no trouble imagining has been a part of Erickson’s consciousness for longer than he deserves. Obviously, not all of theses songs are about Erickson’s madness (on “John Lawman,” Erickson manages to project some madness onto Texas law enforcement, making what could be a somewhat trite derivation of the Beatles’ “Taxman” blossom into a sort of menacing rocker that might be the song you sing right before you end up as the central character in a murder ballad), though it’s hard to separate the songs from the man’s story. This is not entirely a bad thing, as it renders the title track a stunning prayer – when Erickson sings “True love, cast out all evil”, you get the sense that this is his mantra in his darker moments, even as it is a sentiment one could wish upon the entire world.
That, in essence, is the gift that Erickson and Okkervil River have given us on True Love Cast Out All Evil. These 14 songs (I got the deluxe version) traverse the deepest valleys of madness and come out the other side to say that it is highly unlikely that everything will be okay but, on a good day, if we’re kind to one another, things can be pretty all right. I realize that’s not the easy sloganeering of Christina’s Aguilera’s “We are beautiful/ no matter what they say” (by the way, that song was written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and was covered brilliantly by Elvis Costello on the House M.D. soundtrack), but it also has a lot more depth.
Musically, Okkervil River brings their A-game to True Love Cast Out All Evil, providing wafting pedal steel lines and soft horn parts here and there and generally framing Erickson’s lyrics in exactly the sort of musical accompaniment they each seem to require. As a band, they seem a little more inspired than they were on their last album, The Stand-Ins (which had some great songs but seemed to lack the tight focus of 2007’s stellar The Stage Names) and I can only hope they carry that into their next proper Okkervil River album. Although – and this is a compliment, whether or not it sounds like one – it is a testament to Will Sheff’s ear as a producer that it doesn’t matter much that it’s Okkervil River backing Erickson up on True Love Cast Out All Evil. What I mean is, if you didn’t know Okkervil River played on this record, you could still love it.
I don’t know if Erickson would write the way he does if he hadn’t been in and out of the nut hatch throughout his life, but his lyrics are pretty excellent in one respect: they’re never fully coherent enough to get cloying when he’s being sentimental. The songs make a certain lyrical sense, mind you, but when he sings “I love my family always” on “Be and Bring Me Home,” he doesn’t belabor the point with heaps of sugary lyrics and “True Love Cast Out All Evil” is so simply and earnestly stated that you’d have to be a heartless fuck indeed to hate it. It helps that his voice is so perfect for the material: warm and yearning, weathered and weary, with just a dash of humor where it is needed.
At the end of the day, it’s hard not to root for Roky Erickson because of all that he’s been through, but I wouldn’t bullshit you about this music. It’s good and kinda old-timey and kinda trippy and kinda country and kinda rock. The title track is fucking amazing, and the other tracks range from good to great, with a little weird thrown in for good measure. If we can divide 2010’s music into tiers of quality, the top tier would contain two albums I’ve already mentioned to death (if you don’t know what they are, ask and I’ll tell you), and the second tier would certainly contain True Love Cast Out All Evil. It’s not transcendently amazing, but it is simple and beautiful and sad and lovely and somehow exactly the kind of music I think good musicians from Texas ought to make (anything good from Texas is probably bound to be a little melancholy because Texas is… well, Texas).