He follows his artistic muse wherever it takes him. Terry Allen is far better known as a visual artist and sculptor than a musician, but it’s cause for celebration when he returns to his music.
Arriving in Texas in the mid-seventies, everyone in the know seemed to have a copy of Allen’s debut, Juarez, even though it’s initial release had been limited to 1000 copies. Most Texas music milestones made perfect sense to me, completely congruous with the culture. Juarez was something else entirely. Who begins their recording career with a weird, violent and sex-filled concept album about four people making their way to Mexico? The follow-up, Lubbock (On Everything), Allen’s 1979 paean to a hometown he had long deserted, was equally unexpected. It blew away every preconceived notion of this dusty, conservative college town. Full of droll humor and outsized characters viewed through an artist’s prism, his songs were heartfelt and sardonic. the album would become one of the state’s most revered recordings. “I don’t wear no Stetson,” he proclaimed in “Amarillo Highway” (his only song to be widely covered), “But I’m willing to bet, son / That I’m as big a Texan as you are.”
Allen has never quite topped Lubbock. His few recordings sprinkled over the decades have stuck to the blueprint, though, mining his peculiar bent for observation. (1999’s bitterly funny Salivation is a personal favorite).
Just Like Moby Dick is Allen’s first set of new songs since 2013’s Bottom of the World, and reunites the mainstays of his Panhandle Mystery Band with newcomers like vocalist Shannon McNally and co-producer Charlie Sexton.
Now 76, Allen’s narrative style of singing can sink to a low whisper. Moby Dick is a collaborative venture – McNally backs up his vocals throughout and sings two songs on her own, one of them written by Allen’s multitalented wife Jo Harvey. The troika of the Panhandle Mystery Band – drummer Davis McClarty, steel guitarist Lloyd Maines and the wondrous Richard Bowden on violin – sound potent as ever. Sexton’s production makes it all sparkle.
But it’s Allen’s lyrical gifts that keep us coming back. Moby Dick begins with a trio of his finest songs in years. Houdini’s rueful denial of spiritualists figures in the opener (“Even though / he wanted it to be true”). “Abandonitis” compares abandonment to a disease the “doctor can’t cut away”, and suggests the suffering is universal. “Your folks are dead / or maybe just drunks”. “Get in line,” he intones.
Better yet, the poignant “Death of the Last Stripper”: “She had a boy / With some guy from Fresno,” it begins. ‘Where he is now / None of us know / She had a number / On some paper in her purse / That was the number / We tried first / But nobody answered / Every time we tried / We’re the only ones in the world / Even know she died.”
Beyond that, Moby Dick runs the gamut, with gems (and a couple of misses) peppered throughout. “American Childhood” somehow rolls teenage horniness and the “endless fucking” wars of Vietnam and Afghanistan in one suite of songs. There’s a tale about a circus rolling into the “City of the Vampires”, a somber shanty called “Pirate Jenny”, and the closer, “Sailin’ on Through”, which has the feel of a career coda.
There’s little tying the songs to the album’s jokey title, which is probably the point. Allen’s work can range from the tautness of Hemmingway or Carver all the way to the absurd and mawkish. They’re nothing like Melville’s tome, especially in their brevity. For someone who bestows his musical gifts way too infrequently, you’re always left wanting more.
Review by Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor