Away from X, John Doe has always seemed, like his stage name, somewhat anonymous, as if he couldn't quite find his own voice without Exene Cervenka's entwined around it. That is definitely not the case on Freedom Is ..., however, wherein Doe variously ponders and rails at the state of things with an unamused intensity that harks back to the brooding poetics and musical sorcery of the Doors.
It's a far cry from the jejune blasts of skateboard speedball humor that nowadays pass for punk a genre mentioned only because X were once its Southern California figureheads, back when it had energy and brains. Doe builds on that legacy with his new album a work that may not pry too many adolescent ears away from Blink-182 but will appeal to dissidents who like their music uncut and edgy yet don't dismiss "melody" as a four-letter word.
Doe, who's been more visible as a film actor the last few years than as a musician, describes his newest batch of material as "stripped, loud, poetic, sad, quiet" which is to say, it ranges widely. Some songs erupt in a loud 'n' fast hail, while others unfold in more contemplative, deliberate ways. Some are viscerally exciting, while others reach out for attentive listening. Taken together, the 14 songs here depict a well-rounded artist whose work can stand with the best output of his quasi-famous former band and even push beyond it a bit, to the places a still-agitated postpunk adult can go.
In "Beat Up World" (RealAudio excerpt), Doe matter-of-factly abjures suicidal tendencies ("I guess I'd better hang around a few more years") for the weary act of survival on this ruined sphere ("We're gonna live in this beat-up world/ 'Cause we just used up the last one"), tossing out a black-humor punch line so funny, it hurts ("Don't worry, tomorrow will be a brand-new rainy day"). Now, there's a healthy attitude: realistic but not quite fatalistic.
In much the same spirit, Doe pulls no punches in "Too Many Goddamn Bands" (RealAudio excerpt) thank God somebody had the courage to state the obvious a blast at the confounding glut of groups and the cesspool of product pouring out of them. "CDs and CDs and CDs and CDs and more CDs," he rages on the chorus, and, much like Bruce Springsteen's similarly slanted creed in "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)," Doe has a valid point: How can a consumer get to what's good when there's so much mediocre drivel clogging up the marketplace?
Doe is joined by his former life partner, Cervenka, on "Ever After" (RealAudio excerpt), a requiem for fallen comrades that takes a philosophical stand for survival over nihilism. The erstwhile bandmates' voices skirt closely and then break apart in leaping intervals, mounting to a dissonant crescendo of disgust "This shit just isn't funny anymore" as the bass throbs and guitars riot toward the end. Elsewhere, Doe ventures into more ruminative territory, like the measured, melancholy of the opening track ("Catch Me") and the unflinching sadness of the farewell song "Ultimately Yrs."
In an age rife with ironic detachment, something as emotionally unguarded and musically charged as Freedom Is ... will probably be a tough sell to the blinkered masses, which is unfortunate. It ought to be required listening; it's that good.