Album: Johnny Dowd

Cemetery Shoes, Munich

There's a line on Cemetery Shoes, Johnny Dowd's sixth instalment of mutant Americana, that would stand service as the basic tenet of his jaundiced worldview - and of a whole stratum of country music besides. "Man so wicked, and woman so weak," he observes in "Whisper in a Nag's Ear", condensing entire social pathologies down to a single bitter observation.

It's certainly appropriate for the 11 tracks of Cemetery Shoes, which once again cruise the tragic fringes of society, a bleak parade of bad intentions and missed connections in which jail, abandonment and death are the most reliable companions. In Dowd's songs, the fortunate ones are those whose scars are as yet only emotional, such as the recipient of the "Dear John" letter; the estranged parent of "Easter Sunday"; the hapless husband in "Rest in Peace", whose "Vietnamese wife sings like a bird/ But I can't understand a single word"; or the repressed transvestite, shamefully jealous of his new wife's dress in "Wedding Day".

For all, it's obvious, these initial torments are but the opening chapters of much darker stories, with unspeakable conclusions. They're like the early scenes of murder mysteries whose premonitory significance is underscored by doomy swathes of strings - except that in Dowd's world, the hapless protagonists are mocked and teased by music whose galumphing gait and spiky atonality recalls Captain Beefheart and The Residents, outsider music for outsider characters. It lends the songs an authenticity beyond the scope of most routine country weepies and murder ballads, where the form's musical cliches insulate the listener from the action: here, the frazzled, agitated settings allow direct access to the characters' wracked mental states. How better to depict the state of mind of a man sick enough to tell a horse it's carrying a coffin? Or of characters who "feel like the king's mad brother", and believe "nothing is real until you kill it"?

The ramshackle cacophony of the opening "Brother Jim" sets the tone, with Dowd sounding like some deranged revivalist preacher accompanied by The Magic Band and The Shaggs as he notes gloomily how "Life gets meaner and meaner as the years stumble by". From there on, the shadow of the grave is never far away until the final berserk polka instrumental "Rip Off" affords a little wordless solace. Not that Dowd's worldview is entirely bereft of humour, albeit the mordant gallows humour of "Christmas is Just Another Day", where he effects a brilliant commingling of the pathetic and the bathetic, tempering his initial moan that "I'm too sad to be gay/ Christmas is just another day/ Someone else's holiday" with the patently insincere admonition, "Don't forget your mom at Christmas/ It's a mother's special day."