Johnny Dowd is a modern master of the kind of doom-laden country gothic that has proved a valuable venture for such musicians as Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and Tom Waits, in their various different ways; and Cruel Words may be the greatest album of his career.
This is tragedy of a deeper order than rock and country usually mine, and all the more affecting for being couched not in the iconic mythology of traditional roots music, but in the harsh brutalities of modern reality. From the wheelchair-bound soldier's cynical view of the Iraq War in "Praise God" ("We destroy/ To rebuild/ To liberate/ We must kill") to the musings over a musician's lonely motel-room death in "Final Encore" ("Did he have any talent?/ That's for God alone to say/ But just like Ol' Blue Eyes, he always did it his way") and the jagged fragments of imagery - the "linoleum floor" and "red lipstick gash in the face" - in "Cradle of Lies", this is a harsh, unforgiving landscape.
You know right from the opening lines of "House of Pain" - "A cowboy's life is strange/ Gets very existential when his brains are rearranged" - that this is going to be a tough ride, and Dowd doesn't disappoint. Like Brokeback Mountain, this song gnaws at the sexual torment behind the silent macho stereotype, but rather than spend a lifetime of pain, here the cowboy takes drastic action. "He realised his troubles came from that thing between his legs," sings Dowd in his racked drawl. "He drew his pistol, fired six warning shots/ Five of them missed their target, but the sixth one did not." Ouch!
Elsewhere, Dowd gives full vent to righteous blue-collar anger in the reproachful "Miracles Never Happen" and "Anxiety", proudly affirming that "I'm working class, ain't no yuppie scum" over a seething bed of pumping organ and disco hi-hats.
Cruel Words is undoubtedly Dowd's most powerful work musically, with his own serrated, waspish guitar lines and long-time drummer Brian Wilson's jazzy breakbeat flourishes now joined by the bravura keyboards of Michael Stark, whose touch is uncannily sure at all times. The results have more to do with funk, soul and jazz than they do with country music; as for rock'n'roll, Dowd manages to make even a cover of "Johnny B Goode" sound sullen and predatory rather than celebratory - and not just because he dumps a weighty chunk of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" riff on the song. Mind you, it's questionable whether even they could drop anything quite as dark and heavy as Cruel Words these days.
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