In this follow-up to 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, genre-bending legend Alejandro Escovedo seems in a reflective mood. Real Animal not only features many of the styles he has worked in over the years, but lyrically the record is more preoccupied with his past than he normally has been. It’s not his most rocking release — in fact, at times it is downright slick — but it is a personal record as much as it is a love letter to fans. His odd voice, a vocal mix of Warren Zevon and Rick Danko, is at once sarcastic and heartbreaking.
This, his ninth studio release, was produced by Tony Visconti and is full of gems, though they mostly come when he turns down the volume; to my ears, he was always most successful in his alt-country phases. It is not that tracks like the power-pop “Always a Friend” or the explicitly autobiographical “Chelsea,” with its punky, Voidoids-like skronk, fail, but they seem more tepid in comparison to other tracks. Only “Smoke” and “Nuns Song,” a nod to his old punk band the Nuns, has some bite.
“Sister Lost Soul” is a Spector-esque gem, a vocal plea for courage in face of the fact that everyone suffers and everyone has to somehow make it through loss. The real meat of Real Animal comes from four, plaintive, lonesome songs that are personal in keeping with the themes of the record but should remind you of your own experiences.
“Hollywood Hills,” “Sensitive Boys,” “Swallows of San Juan” and “Slow Down” are reflective songs about youthful hopes and dreams, some shattered, and others, through luck, coming true. They have a slow, driving urgency and a passion that other tracks here don’t.
In thirty years of playing and recording, Alejandro Escovedo has been a punk, a county singer, a power-pop rocker. A lot of hits and a lot of misses but always his work has been honest and willing to take chances. On Real Animal, he is also willing to take chances, looking back on his life and career honestly, and without coming across as nostalgic in a maudlin sense.
Escovedo has never sat still as an artist long enough for nostalgia. This is not his best record, but it does have a couple songs that rank with his best.