Roky Erickson could certainly be forgiven for putting out a depressing record. Hell, his long list of troubles — with drugs, with mental illness, with the law, with family custody battles — qualifies him for a good 10 records of darkness. But despite that black-and-white cover, with the 65-year-old Erickson’s face cast in shadow, True Love Cast Out All Evil isn’t a depressing record, not by a long shot. In fact, it’s swelling with hope, with optimism, with an unflappable good will. Erickson’s generosity on these songs, his willingness to see the good, is downright humbling to listen to.
And these aren’t songs that are excellent for a 65-year-old, or for a comeback record, or for any other qualifier you’d like to tack onto them. They’re just plain excellent. From the simple country of “Ain’t Blues Too Sad” to the moody dust of “Goodbye Sweet Dreams” to the part-goofball, part-brimstone rock of “John Lawman” this album is pitch perfect all the way through. Erickson spends much of the record talking about, and directly to, his family. For those who saw You’re Gonna Miss Me, the documentary profiling Erickson’s battle with schizophrenia and his family’s struggles to assist him, these songs will hit hard.
They hit so hard because Erickson isn’t just forgiving, he’s singing as if there’s nothing to forgive. As if the struggles were put upon them from outside. “Be and Bring Me Home” makes his devotion clear. “They told me you were dirty — I saw no dirt,” he sings late in that song, casting away any doubters outside their family, who (at least in the film) were not always seen in the best light.
When he’s not talking to his family, he sings to his wife, Dana. The two were married years ago and are now back together, having weathered the long storm of Erickson’s past, and the love songs get that devotion across beautifully. There’s just the slightest waver to his voice on “Birds’d Crashed,” when he sings the chorus. “And it’s gonna last, it’s gonna last, thinking they had to, birds’d crashed,” Erickson sings of their relationship, tacking on that explanatory metaphor as an afterthought, as if the past doesn’t matter anymore, they’re moving forward.
All through this, Erickson’s vocal performance is affecting and strong. His young man’s howl has, through age and tribulation, been whittled down to a country twang that echoes his new, calm life. It lets him approach some of the worst times of his life with a still clarity. He can sing lines like “electricity hammered me through my head,” and it can be heartbreaking and laced with a faint frustration, but Erickson himself never feels broken. He’s left standing, with both the faith and the demand inherent in the album title. True Love Cast Out All Evil — he believes in that, and he insists upon it.
Okkervil River does an excellent job of backing up Erickson here, mostly by playing everything subtly. The most jarring moments here — the whipped-up feedback that cuts into the stately piano of “Please, Judge” for example — come from Roky himself, usually via snippets of old recorded material. In fact, the album is bookended by recordings believed to have been made by Erickson when he was in a mental institution — and the faith to be heard in them is staggering. But between them, Okkervil River lays down simple foundations for Erickson’s words. There’s small surprises to be found, quiet swells of noise that sneak up on some tracks, but mostly the band shines best by staying in the background. In fact, if they weren’t named on the cover, you might not know they were playing.
And Okkervil frontman Will Sheff, acting as producer, treats this album with care. His choices of songs, the simple band arrangements, his subtle use of feedback on the album — keeping it at a distance from Erickson, not at a claustrophobic swell — even his extensive liner notes all show an honest reverence for Erickson and his story. The way Sheff handles this record is a nice, egoless counter to Rick Rubin’s ham-handed production on those late Cash recordings. Roky Erickson is not just a relic, not just an infamous rock and roll story, not even just a survivor of all that. He’s a fantastic working songwriter, and these songs span all those tough years, while still lighting the way for the years ahead.
So let’s forget True Love Cast Out All Evil as just the end of a dark chapter, or as a new beginning. It may be those things, but those are secondary to what is most important. This is a great record, full with a daring, hard-earned hope, and a deep emotion. And that’s something a lot of records could really use these days.