The music on Freedy Johnston's acclaimed "This Perfect World" album might be classically proportioned, meticulously crafted, highly accessible pop. But the temperament of its creator is as edgy as that of the most alienated punk-rocker.
Like the idyllic small town where horrors unfold in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," Johnston's winsome melodies, seductive arrangements and plaintive vocals deliver complex, detailed stories of treachery, loss and desperation.
In the aching title song, a father returns to face the daughter he left behind, and whose mother he murdered. "Evie's Tears" are the result of a girl's molestation by a priest that has left her emotionally disabled. A recurring motif reflects Johnston's own path, depicting a character moving to the city from the countryside and losing his bearings.
Not the products of a sunny sensibility.
"I'm not a morbid, totally depressed person," says Johnston, 33. "But I do kind of tend to be a pessimist, or maybe more of a realist. I always see the poignancy and the bittersweet angle in something before I see the joy. That's a problem I have, but at least I admit it. . . .
"I have a good time. . . . At the end of the day though, I guess my overall feeling of what you can do in life or what you can expect out of life is fairly black, hopeless."
That's why he's "in shock" over the events of the past several months, a time in which his major-label debut album has met with widespread acceptance from alternative and adult-alternative radio stations around the country.
Elektra Records has shipped nearly 100,000 copies of the critically praised collection to retailers, making Johnston (who plays the Whisky and McCabe's next weekend) one of the year's notable arrivals.
It hasn't been a conventional road to success for Johnston, who grew up without much ambition in the isolation of central Kansas. He eventually made his way to New York and recorded two albums for the independent Bar None label. The second, 1992's "You Can Fly," drew loads of critical attention, leading to his deal with Elektra.
Johnston's initial inspiration came at age 10, when he lived for a time with his grandparents in Phoenix. There he borrowed his grandfather's FM radio, and late at night he heard such early-'70s staples as Steve Miller's "The Joker," Elton John's "Benny & the Jets," Wings' "Band on the Run," and David Essex's "Rock On."
"It just totally transfixed me and changed my life," he says. "I had this wild dream from then on that I was gonna be like Elton John, or I was gonna be like this rock star. . . . But I never pursued it in any coherent fashion."
He got there, though, more or less, and with his success he's attained some form of personal deliverance.
"Being a musician is the only club I've ever really belonged to," he says in his rapid cadence. "It's the only time in my life that I've ever wanted to be part of anything, and it just really moves me.
"Forget it man, I've never done anything in my life. I've never done (expletive). I went to high school, hung out, partyin' out at the lake, drinkin' beers listenin' to Aerosmith. I moved to Lawrence, Kansas and worked in restaurants for years, moved to New York and did the same. Nothin'. Now this is something that gives my life real meaning . . . pretty much for the first time.
Does that mean he's desperate to sustain it?
"You know, I've spent all my money, all my time, I've given up the hope or the chance of having a relationship or kids, or even a real home with carpets on the floor, sold everything I've had, spent 15 years of my life staying in a (expletive) room writing little songs. Man, I'm not goin' away."
* Freedy Johnston plays Friday and next Saturday at the Whisky, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $15. (310) 652-4202; also Nov. 6 at McCabe's, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, 7 p.m. Sold out. (310) 828-4403.