Album: Johnny Dowd

The Pawnbroker's Wife, Munich
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The tacky, dime-novel sleeve design, with its garish pink-and-mustard colour scheme, perfectly evokes the pulp-fiction mood of Johnny Dowd's extraordinary fourth album. The dead-eyed lasciviousness with which the cover girl (the eponymous pawnbroker's spouse, presumably) skewers one's attention marks her out as perhaps the niece of the garage-owner's wife in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the siren lure to a place where desire and danger are inextricably linked. This is the world of the noir novelists James M Cain and Jim Thompson, a world where love and death snake around each other like a Möbius strip, the one leading inevitably to the other, and back again, in an unbreakable loop of fatalism.

Like Cain and Thompson's anti-heroes, Dowd's characters are from the dark end of the street: poor, simple folk stumbling into disaster as they pursue a dim, distant glint of happiness, or slipping into despair as they realise how they've wasted their lives. "Twenty-three years we've been wed/ Now we're sleeping in separate beds," muses the glum protagonist of "Separate Beds", as the couple prepare to part. "Take a look around and see what you want to keep/ Most of it we borrowed, or bought on the cheap." A country lament streaked with poignant melodica, it's the closest thing here to a normal arrangement; elsewhere, life's brutal realities are presented in suitably raw, scarifying settings that sink Dowd's plaintive drawl and Kim Sherwood-Caso's spookily innocent lilt among a thorny tangle of Justin Asher's Beefheartian guitars, scrawling and slithering atonally over discordant organ parts strongly reminiscent of the Residents.

It's by no means an easy listen, but then these are hardly easy matters to deal with. Dread lurks at the end of every line, whether it's the self-proclaimed "King of Emptiness", whose "memory is the cave between my mother's thighs", the redneck lover in "Sweeter than Honey", who hates the way his girlfriend's friends use foreign words and order wine with their meal, or the simpleton "Billy Blu", who has "information unavailable to most/ He converses with the angels and sleeps with the ghosts." Not all are as lucky as the narrator of "True Love", explaining his downfall from six feet under, in the style of "Long Black Veil".

Even Christmas – the peak suicide period, lest we forget – receives its sombre due in the least joyous version of "Jingle Bells" ever recorded, along with "On Shakey Ground", an oompah Christmas song unlikely to be playlisted alongside "Merry Christmas Everybody" in the festive season, thanks to its thoughtful reminder that "Death comes calling – you won't hear a sound." Bizarrely, this in no way diminishes the impact of "Judgement Day", a graphic denunciation of Texas's capital-punishment policy, which opens with the lines: "She's dead! They executed her today!", but closes on the observation, "She ain't the only one facing God on Judgement Day."