A Wonderful Beast
Calvin Johnson is the central component to the music scene in Olympia, WA. Long before Seattle was the boomtown of grunge, and long after that star faded, Olympia has been home to a vibrant, diverse indie scene. And Johnson, who began K Records away back in 1982, has been at the centre. His band, The Beat Happening, were one of the foundational and central bands to the Pacific Northwest. Their 1989 album, Black Candy, was an essential part of my high school soundtrack, even if most of my friends didn’t get it (Hey, I played football after all). Johnson’s atonal, droning baritone is like the rain of the region, comfortable and warm for me.
So A Wonderful Beast The album is dominated by Johnson’s voice, one of the most singular voices in modern rock music. The album was produced by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, but that in and of itself isn’t all that exciting. Carney is kinda everywhere these days, but he is a pretty damn good producer. He also played most of the instruments. But back to Johnson’s voice; it just takes over the music, no matter way, as on the classic Beat Happening track, ‘Red Head Walking.’
A Wonderful Beast is Johnson’s first solo album in 13 years and a stunning comeback. This is also, really, the first album Johnson has been involved with since Black Candy that I can listen to over and over and in its entirety. The album opens with ‘Kiss Me Sweetly,’ where Johnson teams up with Michelle Branch, who just happens to be dating Carney.
The album continues moving from force to force. My particular favourite is ‘Bubbles, Clouds, and Rainbows.’ Here, a basic beat with some fuzzy guitar sees Johnson singing about rainbows and flowers and happy things. But when done in that baritone, there’s something both sinister and brilliant to it. And when he exhorts ‘everyone on their feet’ and moves to ‘alt.right.click delete,’ the musicality becomes kinda transcendent. I kid you not.
The following track, ‘Blues Come Runnin’,’ is reminiscent of the sound of the only other alt.rock 80s god who sounds like Johnson, the unrelated Matt Johnson of The The.
All in all, this is a stunning and most excellent comeback for one of the godfathers of alternative music since the 1980s. It’s hard to imagine that Johnson is 55 years old now. But, I guess we’re all ageing.