Wilderness Refuge 

John Doe’s latest is a natural beauty

If we had a dime for every punker-turned-roots-rocker, we’d have…well, at least a couple of bucks. Too often, these makeovers feel forced—laced with irony or reeking of trend-hopping—but for John Doe, the evolution has been as natural as breathing.

If we had a dime for every punker-turned-roots-rocker, we’d have…well, at least a couple of bucks. Too often, these makeovers feel forced—laced with irony or reeking of trend-hopping—but for John Doe, the evolution has been as natural as breathing. Since 1982, when he and his cohorts from Los Angeles punk band X joined up with Dave Alvin from The Blasters and others to form The Knitters, Doe has been mining the roots of American music, finding the common ground between his raw punk beginnings, rockabilly’s swagger, folk music’s stripped-down austerity and country’s emotional directness. (In other words, his music is sort of like Americana, only good.)

Doe’s new A Year in the Wilderness, his seventh album since embarking on a solo career 17 years ago, is no exception. The 21-second opening track—a simple, cinematic piano melody played over burnished organ swells—sounds like it was snatched from an Aaron Copland symphony. Titled “The Wilderness,” it’s a beautiful touch, and almost acts as a palate cleanser before Doe counts off the balls-out rocker “Hotel Ghost.” Forgoing tired songwriting tropes such as choruses and bridges, “Hotel Ghost” instead relies on three short verses and some superb guitar-piano interplay between Doe and Jamie Muhoberac that sounds like the second coming of Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson. The two opening tracks clock in at a combined two minutes and 48 seconds, and seem like a statement of purpose, as if Doe is saying, “I want this album to be more than just another collection of songs…but I can still rock like hell.”

If that’s the case, then he succeeds in spades on Wilderness. The songwriting is strong throughout, and shows how well-wrought melodies and performances can take lyrics that on paper might look cliché and transform them into wondrous things. The best example is “The Golden State,” a duo with Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards that strings together potential platitudes such as “You are the hole in my head / I am the pain in your neck” into a rootsy pop masterpiece on par with Tom Petty’s best. Even the seemingly straightforward title takes on a dual meaning as the song unfolds—is it a reference to California, or to a blissful state of entanglement? (The song also brings to mind the title track from John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves, a duet with Iris DeMent that, though much more folksy, is also a call-and-response examination of a triumphant, if complex, relationship.)

Other standouts include “Unforgiven” (featuring Aimee Mann on background vocals), the Springsteen-ish “There’s a Hole” and the ethereal “Darling Undergound,” co-written with Doe’s former wife and X bandmate Exene Cervenka and featuring Jill Sobule on backgrounds. (There’s no mistaking that romantic relationships are what this album is about: of the 11 songs with lyrics, nine feature Doe singing to some lover—real or fictitious—either wooing her, missing her, begging her forgiveness or marveling at their bond.)

If there’s fault to be found, it’s that Wilderness is front-loaded—the five bona fide rockers are spent after track eight. The album ends with a laid-back four-song run that features some lovely songwriting, but it peters out a bit on the cojones meter. (The last track, “Grain of Salt,” does pick up steam during its two-minute slide guitar outro.) Still, it’s a great record—its grace and integrity put it in a league with recent albums by Alejandro Escovedo, another punker-turned-roots-rocker. Though Doe may not be as introspective, nor have as many demons to exorcise, both men have a similar emotional power and nobility, and demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion, age (and its commensurate life experience) can be an asset. Or, simply put, just because you’re over 50 doesn’t mean you have to suck.

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