The greatest praise that I can give to the first Roky Erickson album in fifteen years is that if you listen to it without an inclination of the man, his past, and his inner demons, you’ll find it a worthy collection of alt-country originals that please the ear and comfort the soul.
Of course, for those of you that do know about the man, his past, and those inner demons, True Love Cast Out All Evil becomes that much more of an impressive achievement. If you’ve ever seen the documentary on Erickson, You’re Gonna Miss Me, the new record may even come as a relief, as it may be his first release that finally finds him at peace with himself.
I saw the film last year, and it’s heartbreaking. So much that I had written him off as a casualty, ultimately incapable of delivering a new, meaningful album that would come close to his former glory.
When I heard the first release off of True Love Cast Out All Evil, a collaboration with the members of Okkervil River, I was shocked. It was an effort of such clarity that I wondered if it was more the result of Okkervil leader Will Sheff’s own efforts than of Roky’s input. Sheff seems like the kind of caretaker who would do whatever it takes to make sure a new Roky album doesn’t embarrass the man or his legacy.
Now that I’ve heard True Love Cast Out All Evil in its entirety, I can say that while Sheff and the rest of his band certainly have worked hard to deliver what may be the best album of Erickson’s solo career, its majesty wouldn’t have happened if not for Roky’s own desire to give us at least one more album of uncluttered greatness.
Because we’ve heard his lysergic-fueled, Lone Star declarations and we’ve heard his post-traumatic terrors. What we really haven’t heard is Roky himself.
Until now. True Love is an intensely personal album with incredible depth and emotion. While Erikson digs deeps and pulls out words that routinely alternate between resentment and resilience, Okkervil River rise to the challenge by delivering beauty and brutality as needed.
By the end of the vitriolic “John Lawman,” the arrangement is a wreck of feedback, squalling trumpets and other sounds of clatters. It segues into a weird bit of an old radio performance where Roky sounds aloof while the announcer tries to corral some continuity from the disjointed guest. Finally, a firmly plucked electric guitar matches wits with a gentle slide guitar for the title track, where Roky delivers a vocal performance that’s the epitome of redemption.
There are moments like this throughout the album, and actually, the record itself is essentially a song-cycle of Erickson’s life. It’s not what you’d call an easy listen, but that’s probably what impresses me the most. True Love isn’t sugarcoated and it sounds like a natural collaboration between Sheff and Erickson. Sheff has picked out the appropriate songs in Roky’s catalog to paint a vivid picture of Erikson’s life since being incarcerated at the Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane until more recently when Roky was finally provided with the kind of care that not only allows him to function, but also create. Ultimately, Roky’s own voice provides the color throughout the album.
In between the reinterpretations are actual archival recordings—some even originating during his incarceration—which give the record an almost visual quality. And like life itself, sometimes what you see isn’t pretty, but the way in which Erickson and Okkervil River mix their colors together, True Love Cast Out All Evil is a beautiful portrait of the man.