The pattern was set by Johnny Cash. An artist in the twilight of their career, dimly respected but rarely relevant, meets a young and hungry admirer. A record is produced – raw and ‘real’, mixing the gravitas of the elder pop statesman with the edginess of the go-getter. Dollars are earned. Sometimes, art might be created. Cash’s collaboration with Rick Rubin was hugely rewarding for artists and listeners alike – the series of American Recordings will act as a defining statement for the man, and the albums painful and beautiful in equal measure. But in recent years, Willie Nelson has worked with Ryan Adams (on Songbird), and Neil Diamond asked Rubin to work similar mahic for him on 12 Songs. Even Tom Jones has worked with Kelly Jones and Cerys Matthews.
For all its similarities to that template, Roky Erickson’s collaboration with Will Sheff’s Okkervil River, just released as True Love Cast Out All Evil, is also a different beast. This is mostly to do with Erickson rather than Sheff – Okkervil River’s frontman is certainly no Adams or Rubin, but his role here, to shut up and listen, is very similar to theirs. Erickson, on the other hand, has none of the mainstream cache of those two country giants, and his personal story is far darker. As the lead singer of psychedelic rock pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson reputedly dropped acid 300 times in a single year, absented himself from shows and gradually became increasingly unhinged. When he was pulled over and arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint in 1969, his lawyer argued insanity – and Erickson spent the next three years in an institute for the criminal insane. This wasn’t the end of Erickson’s illnesses, and despite a record here or there in the intervening years he has only relatively recently begun to rebuild his life.
The songs on True Love Cast Out All Evil are therefore predictably difficult – songs like ‘Please, Judge’, ‘Ain’t Blues Too Sad’, or ‘Goodbye Sweet Dreams’ are full of loss and regret. But more remarkable than that is Erickson’s optimism, his passionate lust for life most clearly expressed in the gorgeous title track – “Living is a necessity / Please do not die.” These are not songs of despair, and certainly not of defeat. Indeed, they are curiously uplifting. Some of this is thanks to Sheff’s rather wonderful production – he incorporates not just the habitually beautiful playing of Okkervil River, but also cuts and takes from Erickson’s previous work, including moments from prison recordings – which shimmers around Erickson’s committed voice, putting it into perfect relief. Most notably, ‘Forever’ mixes lyric, vocal and arrangement into a perfectly timed anthem for maturity – not of youthful bullishness, but of adult awareness.
Erickson is idiosyncratic – his grammar, themes and delivery at times suggest naivety: “Your father is your father / Your mother is your mother,” he intones gnomically on ‘Think Of As One’. But if these are the pseudish sins of a man once in thrall to Tommy Hall, they are also embedded in his own remarkable experience and, more importantly, in the triumphant and validating musical breadth of this deeply felt record. “I’m a cynical person,” Sheff writes in the liner notes, “and I generally don’t believe stories about miracles. However, having personally seen what’s happened in Roky’s life, I feel surprised to hear myself vouching that his recovery is real … I’m so proud that I could there to see and hear it.” It’s a similar privilege to hear the results.