9 p.m. Oct. 16 at The Sutler
“Welcome Jesus, to my suffering mind,” whines Johnny Dowd over the din of eerie synth fills and trumpet spurts that closes his 1997 debut Wrong Side of Memphis. He isn’t striking a pose here. “Welcome Jesus” sums up the mean blues and twang of the 14 tracks that went before it, music that mirrors the anguish and self-loathing of his lyrics. On “Average Guy,” he drawls, “I got reckless eyeballs...I got a chain saw smile,” while a wrench clangs resolutely against a drainpipe. Dowd’s artless racketsnaky guitar lines, found sounds, tubercular beats coughed out by a decrepit drum machinewould ring false in more self-conscious hands. But unlike lo-fi dilettantes who merely emulate folk art, there’s no distance, ironic or otherwise, between Dowd and his nightmarish music.
The 50-year-old furniture-mover from upstate New York never intended to make such a bare-bones record; he didn’t have money enough to do otherwise. His new album, Pictures From Life’s Other Side (Koch), is a different story. It’s still plenty primitive; Dowd’s crude guitar and creaky warble still emanate from the blues’ primordial ooze. But the drums, keyboards, and female background vocals, as well as banjo, cello, and xylorimba, expand his sonic palette dramatically. The shambling beats and squalling guitar of “Greasy Hands” could almost pass for Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask Replica, while “Worried Mind” makes the theme from Twin Peaks sound cartoon-like by contrast. The album’s title track, a Hank Williams cover, starts off as a woozy calliope waltz, only to give way to a scarifying variant on the riff from The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Here Dowd pummels away at his guitar as if he were beating a victim senseless. Much like some forms of transgressive art, Dowd’s music is as disturbing as it is rivetingit’s almost impossible not to listen.
Dowd’s savage clamor also intensifies the menace, the often palpable threat of violence, that courses through his narratives. Most are sordid tales of dissolution and cruelty born of his radical reading of the doctrine of original sin. In the gospel according to Johnny Dowd, people aren’t just flawed creatures who know but can’t do any betterthey’re bent on destroying each other, and themselves. The tomb, we learn, is the only way out. But as the pitiful protagonist of “Ballad of Lonnie Wolf” discovers upon botching his suicide attempt, “Death is a gift only God can give.” Granted, this song is a bit clichéd, set as it is in a trailer park and a VA hospital. But it’s this reliance on over-the-top imagery and even out-and-out caricature that makes Dowd’s Gothic theater oddly compelling, and a far sight scarier than that of Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor.
But Dowd steps over the lineand steps in itwith his portrayal of women. Where his previous album had its share of brutality, most of it was self-directed, or incorporated into latter-day murder ballads reported in the third-person. But on his new album, Dowd sings in the first-person. There’s no mistaking the misogynist message of “God Created Woman,” in which the cuckolded Dowd applies his lover’s deception to all women. “Let this be a warning to all you foolish men,” he cautions. “God created the woman, but she’s the devil’s next of kin.” In a similar vein, on “Greasy Hands,” he sings, “She was like a jar of honey in a world of desperate flies/She could not be monogamous, she never even tried.” Along the way, Dowd shoulders some of the blame for his ill-fated love affairs. Yet as titles like “The Girl Who Made Me Sick” attest, the onus for his misery falls on women.
Sure, all of this could just be Dowd serving up sexism in society as naked lunchand making it more real by rendering his morality tales in the first person. But he sounds too at home with his rancorous tone and with the idea of “sexual warfare” to be acting. Dowd all but confirmed as much in an interview last year, when a writer from the Chicago Tribune asked him about blurring the lines between autobiography and fiction. “Every character on this album is true to me emotionally,” he said. So while it may be honest, even gutsy, of Dowd to stare down his demons publicly“memories squawk like monsters in my head,” he singsthat’s still no excuse for demonizing women to ease his suffering mind.
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