That Will Johnson is a powerful and prolific songwriter is not up for debate.
Over the past eight years, Will has proven himself a veritable magnet for critical
and peer affection; the words "cult following" tend to hover near any
description of either his folk-pop juggernaut, Centro-Matic, or its gray-skied
cousin, South San Gabriel. Johnson is the author of a staggering 10 full-length
albums between those two bands and his solo project (Murder of Tides, his
solo debut, was released in 2002), and each is a unique statement, holding its
own within a catalogue easily placed alongside those of Uncle Tupelo or the Drive
By-Truckers, Neil Young or the Replacements.
Johnson's solo songs are simply stunning. Like Murder of Tides, Vultures
Await carries the darkness absent in Johnson's other projects, but it is
not just somber - an underlying hopefulness flows through these songs. Stark
vocal melodies cut a swath to Appalachia, ghosts of roadhouse barmen backing
up against Flannery O'Connor; these are interwoven throughout piano ballads,
acoustic elegies and, occasionally, fully fleshed-out pop songs that carry the
seamless, rough emotion of a Southern literary genius.
Consider the creative ingenuity that went into the finest winning streaks in
rock and roll history: Van Morrison '67-'72, Springsteen '75-'82, Costello '77-'84.
Now consider that Johnson has recently hit such a stride, rendering his most
intimate, visceral and personal work to date. Recalling at times the haunted
nostalgia of Plastic Ono Band or the glorious wrecked majesty of Nilsson's Pussy
Cats, Vultures Await is testimony that a truly daunting talent suddenly
Like Springsteen's Nebraska, Vultures Await begins with an account of
a crime and its aftermath. In this case--"Catherine Dupree"--it is
arson, committed at a university by a female anti-hero. It is an act easily
interpreted in either the literal or metaphorical. Johnson paints an individual
driven to drastic measures in an effort to break free from a life of false promise,
unedifying scholarship, and unwilling indoctrination into a society of numbing
convention. Though the aura conjured is one of tremendous sadness, Johnson lightens
the atmosphere with his trademark wit: "It was widely reported that Catherine
Dupree/ Had sought some revenge for her faulty degree." These are the characters
that inhabit Vultures Await: A united front of unlikely protagonists
intent on refuting the values of a rapidly devolving society. Often, for Will's
characters, there is a terrible price pay for this solidarity of theme. On the
title track, Johnson sings, "I heard you tried to call today/ While I tried
to make my great escape." The narrator does not know where he is going,
but he knows he is going alone, and in the distance he sees birds of prey circling.
Later, on "Just Some Silence," the gauntlet is thrown down; having
examined the proposition of a lifetime of muted boredom and unfulfilling exertion,
the narrator decides,"The worst thing to do was just accept it/ With no
reservations, just some silence/ It was an evil routine, an old exhaustion."
These are the stories of people courageous enough to follow Bob Dylan's famous
advice, "it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to."
Then there is the voice... The world is filled with trained vocalists, but
there are a very few singing voices which convey a particular sense of raw emotion
so immediate as to be simultaneously transporting, arresting and a little unsettling.
John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Roscoe Holcomb, Paul Westerberg and Billie Holiday--these
are singers who fit this description--and this is the sort of voice Will Johnson
is gifted with. It is a matter for speculation as to whether or not the immense
depth of Johnson's material might be conveyed by a less passionate, extraordinary
singer. Fortunately this is not a question that requires examination in this
instance. Desperate times in our society have already yielded some dividends
in our culture, and 2004 has already seen the release of some extraordinary
music. But none will prove so indispensable as Vultures Await, an album
poised to stand the test of time as an extraordinary record of its time and