With this album Johnston answers the musical question of ‘what the hell happened to Freedy Johnston?’ quite handily, giving his fans (or what’s left of them) a disc of new songs after a seven year sabbatical from studio recording. Though almost a lifetime in the pop music world, Johnston hasn’t been totally silent, having released a live album and an odds-and-sods collection of early songs since Right Between The Promises , his last studio release in 2003 for Elektra Records. But, for the most part, this is Johnston’s “comeback” record and it’s fitting it should be for Bar/None, the label on which he released his first three much-acclaimed albums in the early ’90’s . While more than enough time has passed for Johnston to get a new look from both his old fans and from the public at large, his original fanbase may have moved on, so Johnston has both the benefit of being fondly remembered and the negative of having to prove himself again and remind people of his past successes , relatively minor though they may be.
Negatives aside, this “starting over” position may be the best thing for him as he really should have been huge by the end of the ’90’s. This may give him a chance to hit the “do-over” button and get the acclaim he has always deserved for his great songwriting style and the time he’s put into honing it.
Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, Johnston eventually obtained his first guitar through a mail-order service and made the occasional road trip with his brother or friends whenever he wanted to pick up an album he had read about, the most influential being Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. Costello is a telling influence as Johnson concentrated most of his efforts on becoming a great songwriter, as opposed to a artist with an overwhelming personality. Anyone who happened to listen to Johnston’s first two records, especially the career-defining The Trouble Tree, knows Johnson succeeded in his quest to become a compelling songwriter. Unfortunately, his less than commanding stage presence kept his career more on a slow burn, even at his peak Johnston was not what you’d call ubiquitous, preferring to let his music do the talking like most true artists. He had his hit, but was unable or unwilling to capitalize on it and subsequently released some decent enough albums to a sadly diminishing audience. Though I am sure taking seven years off was not planned, this time away seems to have revitalized his songwriting and his outlook in general as he seems really “dialed in” on this new record.
As far as comebacks go, this one is pretty solid. Johnston’s hooks are more subtle than most other songwriters’ but his songs are not hard to listen to by any means – just low-key enough that you don’t even realise you’re humming the melodies until you have this epiphany that you know his whole album and can hum each song from start to finish. Part of Johnston’s charm is that he never beats you over the head with big choruses or the kind of sugary sentiments found on today’s pop radio. Like great songwriters Guy Clark and Nick Lowe, Johnston wins you over by telling a superior story in a superior way which can be clever or not, but is always extremely engaging and captivating. I wish more veterans like Johnston would use quality stealth instead of pandering and trying to catch the lowest common denominator. Johnston aims high and usually gets it, and that’s what true music fans are seeking. The flavor-of-the-month fans will come and go, if Johnston is to succeed (and he does on this disc, winningly) he’s got to aim for the lifers. To me, this new set beats just about everything else he’s done.
In my eyes (and ears) this album is a fantastic return to form for Johnston, who had been saddled with almost unattainably high expectations ever since his hit Bad Reputation lit up the airwaves in the mid-’90’s. It was almost as if the entire Triple-A radio format rested on his shoulders due to the timing of his hit and the fact he was given quite a bit of airplay on mainstream album rock radio. More so than many other artists and bands of the period including The Jayhawks, Wilco, Aimee Mann, and the Old ’97’s – most of which have gone on to have very successful careers if generally under the mainstream radar – Johnston was expected to be the next big thing and failed when he couldn’t follow up his hit with anything substantial. That his style was always more about solid songwriting than pop hits was lost on the general public who liked Bad Reputation and wanted him to write whole albums of songs in that style. Would he have stayed with Bar/None instead of jumping to Elektra, he may have been able to nurture his audience along, but with his major-label jump (and despite Elektra being the most artist-nurturing of all the majors’ affiliates) expectations and demands were high, too high for Johnston’s low-key, introspective pop songs to achieve. Now, it’s a new ball game and luckily Johnston finds his talent as strong as it ever was. With a newly energized control over his destiny and a great new album, maybe Johnston can shake his Bad Reputation once and for all!