Freedy Johnston writes epic songs of loss and heartbreak and sings them with unassuming earnestness, as though apologizing for intruding on a private moment. He charmed his way into the hearts of rock critics with the opening line from Can You Fly‘s “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know”: “Well I sold the dirt to feed the band.” Turned out this was a true story. When his first album, The Trouble Tree, garnered encouraging notices, the Kansas native sold his inherited family farm in order to finance the recording of a follow-up. He moved to New York, gathered an incredible supporting cast and recorded Can You Fly, an album that stands as one of the most plaintive singer/songwriter statements of the ’90s — marked by gentle tempos, snake-like melodies and finely wrought observations of personal crises.
The Trouble Tree barely hints at such depth. It captures Johnston’s wheedling and whiny voice in extreme close-up, forcing listeners to seek refuge in overextended wordplay and spare guitar-based arrangements. Johnston tries too hard to be clever and the effort is audible: only “Down on the Moon #1” and “Fun Ride” stand up to repeated scrutiny. With Can You Fly, however, Johnston finds a way to be dramatic and musical. Replacing the raw angst-matter of his earlier work with a storyteller’s penchant for detail, he writes of despair, the end of a relationship (“Tearing Down This Place”), love with a mortician’s daughter and the metaphysics of flight, all with a wide-eyed enthusiasm. Even the simple act of dedicating a song, as “In the New Sunshine,” can be an occasion for discovery. This ability to transform the familiar serves Johnston musically as well: his wrenching lyrics are framed by simple guitar counterpoint and haunting, austere, extremely grounded instrumental tracks.
Johnston was snapped up by Elektra after the release of the six-song Unlucky EP, which includes a Can You Fly single (“The Lucky One,” also presented in its demo form) and a surprisingly prairie-minded treatment of “Wichita Lineman.” This Perfect World, Johnston’s Butch Vig-produced major-label debut, lacks some of its predecessor’s punch but nonetheless shows plenty of poetic growth. He sounds downright comfortable singing in non-rock contexts: the mournful title track, one of several concerned with suicide, is built around acoustic guitar and cello, while “Gone Like the Water” exhibits the easy affability of a country picnic. Jane Scarpantoni’s cello adds an appropriately baroque touch to the coolly related tales of betrayal and despair. The ballad-heavy album’s single, a medium-tempo confession entitled “Bad Reputation,” is a classic pop hit that wasn’t. Keen listeners may note Johnston’s many literary references, including Nabakov’s Lolita (“Delores”) and The Secret Garden (“Evie’s Tears” and “Evie’s Garden”).
Despite the momentum gathered by Can You Fly and This Perfect World, Johnston’s career stalled. Never Home and Blue Days Black Nights are not exactly bad albums, but neither reaches the heights of his previous two, and the tone of both seems perversely calculated to disperse the fanbase he had earned. Never Home is dominated by producer Danny Kortchmar, who plays everything from guitars to drums; only guitarist Dave Schramm and bassist Graham Maby remain from Perfect World. The first track is a driving rock single, “On the Way Out,” with Johnston’s thin tenor rising faintly over the din. If previous albums were ballad-heavy with a few rock songs, the proportions are reversed here. “Western Sky” and “Hotel Seventeen” are the standout ballads here, but too many of the rock songs are indistinct.
Blue Days Black Nights tilts too far in the other direction. With T-Bone Burnett at the helm, Johnston fades into an umbral haze of gloomy balladeering. The languor doesn’t diminish the goodness of a few songs — “While I Wait for You” is one part R.E.M.’s “Find the River” and one part Crowded House’s “Better Be Home Soon” — but the overall timbre is enervating. “Changed Your Mind” is tolerable mid-tempo rock, and there are elegant lyrics in “The Farthest Lights” and “Moving on a Holiday”; the rest is too samey to bear repeated listening.
Even hardboiled Freedy fans may have lost hope With Right Between the Promises. The first single was a cover (ironic or sincere, hard to say) of Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.” As a commercial bid, it was unlikely to succeed, and it’s hardly an apt artistic touchstone for Johnston. Maybe he just liked it. The plinking banjo on “Radio for Heartache” reaches back to The Trouble Tree, and “Back to My Machine” is a novel human-mechanical romance. Regardless, the infrequent high points rarely reach the peaks of which Johnston is capable, and the clunkers are far too frequent.
Returning to the indie label where he started, Johnston released the demos-and-outtakes compilation The Way I Were in 2004.