'True Love Cast Out All Evil' is the first `new' album by Roky Erickson in a very long time. That is not to say the material is new; in point of fact, many of the songs are at least ten years old and many are even more than that. What makes this album diametrically opposed to anything issued as being by Roky Erickson - solo or with any of the various bands with which he recorded - in the last few decades is that - with, two exceptions - the recordings are new.
That alone made the album of interest to me. Erickson had become what I'll call a `fly in amber.' The material beings released by various and sundry labels, bootleggers and friends was all dated. (Please note that I am not - in any way, any shape and/or any form - criticizing `I Have Always Been Here Before' anthology which was very clearly a labor love by folks looking out for Erickson.) That meant a majority of those interested in the man and his music - and unable to attend recent performances at SWSX in Austin, Texas, or sporadic TV or live shows here and there - had no idea what he sounded like now or what styles were involved.'
The back-story to this CD, as related by Will Sheff is contained in the liner notes. After arriving in Austin, Sheff became involved in a band Named Okkervil Rivers in 1998 then added to that participation in a spin-off band named Shearwater in 2001. Both bands - I admit I have heard none of their music, but likely will do so shortly - operate under the moniker of indie rock, so let's just accept that as the case. Sheff and Okkervil River back Erickson at SWSX. This lead to a call from Erickson's manager asking of interest in doing an album with Roky.
Thus the album was made. Twelve songs, two said to be recordings from Roky's days at Rusk State Hospital, others from, as mentioned, various times since then. The start of the record is truly jarring: a decidedly lo-fi tape of Rocky and someone else - both on guitars - with conversation as a preface and near-incomprehensible dialogue from a movie or television or maybe a movie on television. What has occurred is Sheff's setting the stage of what Rusk must have been like for Erickson. The end of the disc is the same; a song from Rusk. The difference between the two is the overlay of strings, implying peacefulness, a sense of redemption.
In between these dark views of Roky's past are ten other songs written across the span of decades. Some are short - as little as 1:20 - others are longer. All except one, a rail against law enforcement entitled `John Lawman,' are surprisingly low key and understated. This is particularly apparent on material that has already been released such as `Please Judge' and `True Love Cast Out All Evil.' As it appears on the aforementioned anthology, the former song has a somewhat desperate tone - something one might expect given the circumstance described. The latter song is changed, I think, more profoundly. Earlier versions are driven by stating the importance of finding such love. This version seems to be a confirming statement of just how right the quest was for that love.
This brings me to the crux of the matter; namely how Erickson sounds currently. I've already mentioned that the first and last songs are from the 1970s. I am assuming the others are current. The current voice is still Roky Erickson, a little bit more coarse and gravelly and, at least with most of the phrasing found here, more country than in the past. (`John Lawman' being the only song that, with its more driving rhythm, but decidely limited lyrics, is a spot where the older Roky can be heard.) In that aspect, this is a fine, very fine body of work. It is something that I am please to be able to hear and enjoy. But, I am afraid that I do have some issues with production.
I believe Will Sheff set out to produce an aural portrayal of Roky Erickson's trials and redemption. Beginning the disc with a depiction of the hell he endured at Rusk, we are given a fairly good image of what schizophrenia must sound like. Returning to this place in the last song might be seen as indicative of failure, but for the inclusion of Beatlesque strings which announce that, although one is never cured of the disease, life can be serene and satisfying. In between, we continue to experience this somewhat pastoral effect on most of the songs. This messaging is carried through melody and phrasing that is decidedly country in feel.
None of this is a complaint. It is simply my point of view. And within that framework, I must say that I find the album is over-produced. Now, I understand that Sheff is trying to paint a sound picture here, and within that framework I can appreciate the inclusion of movie and TV dialogue at the end of cut 1 and in a few other locations - once even inside the song as a sonic-bridge of sorts. This is reflective Roky's use of sound in lieu of psychotropic drugs at one stage in his life. I also didn't mind the feedback and studio talk found here and there. What I didn't care for was the heavy, dense, almost Spector-intense instrumental additions, They seemed contrary to my perception of what Erickson and his songs should be. At the risk of restarting a cottage industry, I'd like to hear the tapes without the overdubs and with Roky's voice pushed up more.
Can I recommend the album: yes.