Over the course of a varied and accomplished career, Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo has been written about in every conceivable manner, in myriad publications, by many talented writers. Since he’s never achieved full-blown mainstream success, people love to canonize him, thrusting his underappreciated talents briefly into the spotlight. He was No Depression’s artist of the decade in 1998, and just a few months ago, Bruce Springsteen invited him onstage to perform a song from Escovedo’s excellent 10th album Real Animal.
For me, things are a bit more personal: Escovedo was the first musician whose work made me cry in public. I was 17, interning at WXPN’s Live at the World Café in Philadelphia, and made it a priority to weasel my way into the back corner of the control room during his taping. He was touring behind 2001’s brilliant A Man Under the Influence. Even through the thick glass the man inspired clichés—an old soul, a natural, a troubadour—as he chatted about the inspiration behind each song. “Wave” told of his father leaving Mexico and leaving his family behind; “Rosalie” was a tale of unflinching long-distance love.
As the set wrapped up, he spoke about the power of stories, and said that his final song was a kind of mission statement for the record. Then, in a heart-crushing hush he started to sing, and by the time he insisted, “There’s a story inside your heart that needs a witness,” I was wiping ’em away—and I wasn’t the only one. Between the words, the proximity and the strange potency of his serene charisma, this man, decades my senior, yanked my teen angst right out of its perpetual home in the pit of my stomach.
Escovedo’s a master of lyrical simplicity. Beyond all the heartfelt stuff, he’s responsible for a few of the best passive-aggressive kiss-offs ever, such as “Why don’t you sleep / You look as though you need it” from More Miles Than Money’s “Pissed Off 2 a.m.” And his words are just as punchy on Real Animal, from the plaintive refrain on “Always a Friend” to the brisk fatalism of “People.”
His eclectic breed of Americana-inflected rock provides a nuanced backdrop for his stories—from non-indulgent shredding to cooing strings and cinematic beauty, all augmented by his no-fuss delivery. The album’s smile-inducing opening chords resonate with a satisfying rock clang, and the aching swells of “Sister Lost Soul” and “Slow Down” tap into his signature wistfulness.
The last couple of years have been tough for Escovedo. Now-vanquished health problems kept him off the road and inspired nationwide fundraisers, spurring those canonizers to action. So it’s exciting that Real Animal sounds so vibrant and alive. In lieu of quiet contemplation, Escovedo offers a ragged, invigorating reflection on four decades of playing music. Real Animal bounces joyfully from genre to genre, but never feels less than authentic. Maybe that’s Escovedo’s greatest talent—an authenticity that is downright unnerving. Bring tissues.
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I know people in their 70s who are day laborers and on their feet all…