Calvin’s Pop Pep Rally

The beat happening goes on with the K Records’ CEO’s Patrick Carney-produced solo LP A Wonderful Beast

Calvin Johnson A Wonderful Beast, K Records 2018

Artist: Calvin Johnson
Recording: A Wonderful Beast
Label: K Records
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)


Calvin Johnson is That Voice, and That Voice is Calvin Johnson. That Voice is deep, dark, imperious, and singular – a veritable Rock of Gibralter, a Sisyphean boulder, an Easter Island monolith. That Voice, and how he invariable wields it, is Johnson’s calling card. It rumbles, with zero traces of guile, wit, or irony (though those elements may surface in his lyrics): Here Comes Calvin, as though he were the ageless, unflappable star of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon program on NBC in 1986.

How you prefer your Calvin is a private matter, of course. But it isn’t like there aren’t options available: Beat Happening for Proto Low-Fi Calvin, The Hive Dwellers for Jangle-Rock Calvin, Dub Narcotic Sound System for Toaster Calvin, or What Was Me for Barbershop Calvin and/or Nu-Negro Spiritual Calvin, to say nothing of dozens of other projects and guest appearances. (If you haven’t revisited The Halo Benders’ God Don’t Make No Junk lately, why the fuck not?)

With A Wonderful Beast, Johnson arrives at a sweet, rarefied moment in his long career, one where he’s simultaneously Leonard Cohen, William Shatner, and Superions-era Fred Schneider, camp-vamping merrily as candied Pop Rocks rattle and burst around him. With Black Keys’ drummer/producer Patrick Carney acting as his songwriting foil – Michelle Branch surfaces a few times to harmonize or sing backup – Johnson is effectively at play.

The question each song seems to pose is “what sort of party will this be?” The answer, generally speaking, is a knowing chuckle. “Blues Come Runnin’” begins as a Morphine b-side and ends as mild, silly vamping; what lies in-between is a running Dad-joke commentary on what the blues actually aren’t. The funky “When the Weekend Comes Around” feeds Johnson’s voice through a filter that lends it a vapor trail. “Wherefore Art Thou” is his synth-pop, strutting SparkNotes version of Romeo & Juliet, replete with hoots. The title track is Little Red Riding Hood as misguided love song, sweetened by strings – a dichotomy Johnson sells with admixture of admiration, revulsion, and indifference. It’s all a goof, you wonder – but is that how he really feels? That’s never been the point, of course, and still isn’t.

What A Wonderful Beast desires, mostly – ambling along at a companionable, strident mid-tempo – is to elicit snuck grins and half-hearted dancing and remind us that Our Calvin – financial planning shortcomings aside – can totally still do this fun thing he does, this poker-faced unlikely Master of Ceremonies bit. (There is a tune called “Why You Crying”, which, why would you be crying while A Wonderful Beast is on the hi-fi? “Why You Crying,” with all its chatter of waffles and pancakes, usually just leaves me hungry.) Still – still! – someone saw fit to sneak “Bubbles, Clouds & Rainbows” into the middle of this clambake, a fanciful, garage-y confection that bears a chanted chorus that’s been paying rent in my mind for weeks now: “Go, go, go, really go!/Go go, everybody on your feet!/ALT-RIGHT, CLICK DELETE!” It’s catchy, and it’s …. Obliquely political.

Calvin, you sly dog, you.

 

 

 

 

Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings resides in Owings Mills, Maryland. A 1999 graduate of Washington College, he is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Class Notes, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, Pitchfork, Deadspin, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Bricolage Bop, his next collection of poetry, will be published independently in 2019.

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