Lots of independent artists have had unusual brushes with mainstream success, but none of them has a story as strange as that of Freedy Johnston. After releasing Can You Fly, an album that was hailed as “perfect” by Robert Christgau and eventually cited in Tom Moon’s 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, and following it with the similarly lauded A Perfect World, Johnston still couldn’t make the transition from critically praised to commercially successful. His biggest exposure to this day remains the 1996 bowling comedy Kingpin, for which he assembled the soundtrack. After spending the ’90s trying to break through, Johnston spent this past decade mostly underground, releasing only the less-successful Between the Promises on Elektra, a couple of live albums, and collections of rarities and covers. Rain on the City marks Johnston’s first album of new recordings in nine years. It finds the artist in fine, if not necessarily transcendent, form.
The songs on Rain on the City are unmistakably Johnston’s; they are characterized by his careful attention to every musical and lyrical detail on the song, the collection of haunted and broken characters populating them, and his plaintive delivery in telling their stories. There’s nothing really wrong with a single one of them. The problem is that fans of Johnston’s music have been here before. His thematic elements and musical approach are essentially unchanged from his earlier albums, and the songs here don’t contain anything quite as compelling as “Bad Reputation,” “Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know,” or “This Perfect World.” While it’s not entirely fair to hold up an artist’s previous albums to his current one, Johnston all but forces the comparison by not evolving measurably in the last nine years. Rather than add to Johnston’s already impressive legacy, Rain on the City merely marks time.