Maybe it’s the phrase “singer/songwriter” that makes my asshole clench up. I think of the douchebag in Animal House singing “I Gave My Love a Cherry,” until John Belushi, in his infinite wisdom, comes along and smashes the schmuck’s thrift-store guitar against the wall, shattering the vehicle of his lousy poetry into millions of pieces.
In general, singer/songwriters are just the worst. They take all their crappy high school poetry about the girls they never got and the anime they pounded it to when they should have been in church and write songs about them, all of them starting with an A minor chord. Now, that’s a harsh blanket assessment, and even I can’t stand behind it fully, because there are some people who have worn the label and worn it well. James Taylor comes to mind, as does Harry Chapin. There are a lot of people who really like Jewel’s music, even though she admits to having preternaturally tiny hands. Robert Earl Keen wrote the best Christmas song ever, and when James McMurtry is on point, he’s hard to beat (I listen to “Choctaw Bingo” at least twice a week).
Then, there’s Freedy Johnston.
This is a guy who was so sure he was going to be a successful musician, he sold some of the farmland that had been in his family for generations to fund his second record. That’s ballsy and deserves some respect. He had the chops to back it all up, eventually getting signed to Elektra.
Johnston’s breakthrough album, This Perfect World, is a pitch-black journey into the lives of desperate people doing desperate things. It is filled with grief, despair, regret, and images that grow in the mind like sad lesions. Happiness is brief, if it shows up at all, and is not to be trusted. You want every song to be a book, some crazed mixture of Hubert Selby, Jack Kerouac, and Jesus, blurting out the worst possible truths at the most inopportune times.
Picking one song to focus on for this article was a difficult task, but seriously, if you haven’t heard “This Perfect World,” hold on to your feels, because this song will rip them into shining bloody bits.
The main character in the song just got back from somewhere (jail?) after a terrible thing happened (a death, perhaps of a child?) and he’s trying to talk to someone that he has wronged. It’s a warning, it’s an apology, it’s a plea for acceptance. It’s heartbreaking.
Check out these lyrics.
Now I’ve come around, it’s far too late
And these pills won’t even let me cry
No one knows even when you’re gone
But I still deserve to say goodbye
No matter what I’ve done
His delivery, and the simple tune behind it, picked out on a simple capoed guitar, makes this song a swift heart-punch, except your heart has moved to your crotch. It will bring a sober man to tears and drive a drunk man to the edge.
Johnston clearly creates and delineates his characters in the span of three minutes. He works fast and well, leaving behind only the murk necessary to tell a good story. And he is a storyteller at heart, the kind of tales you hear late at night in sketchy places from good people who fell hard and far. His songs are filled with portraits of ordinary people, holding onto their humanity by their ragged fingernails.
“This Perfect World” is an intentionally ironic title, to be sure, but this perfect album needs to be dragged up from the bottom of the lake and re-examined. There are hard truths here, served with a nice cold mug of black humor. It’s also the best place to see where Freedy Johnston took the term “singer/songwriter” and made it transcendent, something to aspire to instead of something to run from.
Listen to “This Perfect World” and other songs mentioned in the Waxing Nostalgic series on the Waxing Nostalgic playlist on Spotify.