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POP MUSIC

His Imperfect World

Freedy Johnston's music springs from the sometimes painful environment he grew up in. The melodic, often abstract songs have found an appreciative, if not enormous audience. Hey, nothing's perfect.

June 01, 1997|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Freedy Johnston writes such hauntingly original and affecting songs about longing and need that his work has been frequently compared to such pop-rock masters as Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell.

Despite enough rave reviews to fill a wing of a branch library, however, Johnston's music hasn't received the massive radio airplay that could make him more than a cult favorite. Together, his two Elektra albums have only sold about 200,000 copies.

Even though some of his songs are blessed with melodies rivaling the best of Paul McCartney, Johnston's themes can be demanding--alternately witty and obsessive in ways that don't always reveal themselves on a first listening the way radio hits usually do.

It's not that the songs are purposefully evasive, but that Johnston reflects on life's contradictions and complexities with the skill and ambition of a first-rate short story writer. Like a mystery novel, there are clues, but not quick solutions.

Maybe Elektra Records ought to market his albums as a parlor game--where the challenge is coming up with the best interpretation of the songs.

"Not a bad idea," Johnston says good-naturedly during an interview in a Santa Monica restaurant before a performance at the Ash Grove.

"Western Sky," a ballad from his new "Never Home" album, is such a rich, multilayered tune that it could keep the game participants debating for quite a while.

It tells of a man on a two-day drive out West, lonely for his wife, who has flown home ahead of him. As the song unfolds, we learn that the man won't fly because his father was a pilot who was killed in a plane crash. When the driver stops for the night, he phones his wife, wanting to give . . . and to hear . . . words of comfort.

In a pop world that long ago seemed to run out of fresh ways of saying, "I love you," "Western Sky" shows there are still fresh, moving ways to do so.

Or does it?

Could "Western Sky" really be about tensions in a relationship?

If the wife loved him so much, why didn't she ride with him rather than fly?

"Good question," Johnston says, pausing to consider an option that hadn't apparently occurred to him.

"Maybe she has to get home for something," he says, finally. "Maybe it's they don't want the kids to have to spend two days in the car. . . .

"It is definitely a love song, but I like some complexity, some mystery. The idea isn't to trick anybody, but to make them feel or discover something about the people in the songs and, maybe, about themselves. The aim is to be honest, but not obvious. . . ."

*

Johnston, a Kansas native who has lived for about a third of his 36 years in the New York area, is hard on his own work, refusing to include a lyric sheet on his acclaimed 1994 album, "This Perfect World," because he felt that some of the songs were unfinished.

A short, wiry man, Johnston is also something of a perfectionist when it comes to interviews. Frequently returning to earlier topics to revise or amplify on his remarks, it's as if he is constantly reviewing a transcript that is running through his head. His eyes search for reactions with such intensity that they seem as if they are attached to you like Velcro. Clearly, the complexities in this man's life aren't limited to fictional characters.

"I'm not an autobiographical writer," Johnston declares early in the interview.

True enough, you don't sense the writer's presence in such songs as "On the Way Out," a song on his "Never Home" album about a shoplifter. But that's not one of the tunes that makes you care about Johnston.

The heart of his work--from "Western Sky" to "The Mortician's Daughter"--conveys an almost overpowering sense of loneliness and isolation, qualities that don't seem simply the products of a fertile imagination.

"This Perfect World," for instance, reminds you of the balance of beauty and disorder underlying David Lynch's landmark film "Blue Velvet." As in "Western Sky," the melody is sweet and soothing, but the story is dark and unsettling.

In the song, a father returns to console the daughter he left behind after her mother's suicide. The drama is compounded by questions of guilt, including whether the father feels responsible for the mother's action and how much the daughter blames him.

The key to the song, however, isn't the death of the mother, but the separation between the father and daughter.

In many reviews, a line is drawn between the sense of isolation in Johnston's songs and the fact that he grew up in small towns in western Kansas. But there are lots of people from small towns whose songs don't remind you of "Blue Velvet." The more likely reason for much of the emotional tone is that he came from a broken home.

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