Terry Allen is a Texas country legend from the same town, Lubbock, TX, and with similar songwriting tendencies as the more famous Flatlanders – Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. Allen is also a visual artist with drawings and paintings on display at some of the world’s most famous museums. Called by many a “master lyricist” and is such an imaginative, free-wheeling story-teller that his songs are almost like mythologies. He has so much to draw from whether that be drawings, prints, sculptures, theater, radio plays, songs or poetry. And, on top of that, he is a peerless historian of the American West. Allen does not make albums often, but he makes very memorable ones. Just Like Moby Dick is already being dubbed as the spiritual successor to Lubbock (on everything) from 1979, oft-cited as one of the most influential country albums ever. Sure, he’s made several since, but this is the first since 2013’s Bottom of the World.
This is all you need to know about Terry Allen’s standing amongst his peers. When the legendary Guy Clark passed away, his disciples (Ely, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and others) all gathered at Terry and his wife of almost 60 years, Jo Harvey Allen’s house to commiserate together and share songs. So, it should not be all surprising to find Allen in the company of some of the best in what he calls the Panhandle Mystery Band. They are co-producer and master guitarist Charlie Sexton, singer-songwriter Shannon McNally, Jo Harvey Allen, mainstays Bukka Allen (Terry’s son), Richard Bowden, and the master of all good sounds from Texas – Lloyd Maines. Recent mainstay drummer David McLarty is joined by Austin in-demand players, Glenn Fukunaga (bass) and Brian Standefer (cello), Terry’s other son Bale Allen plays djembe on “Abandonitis.” Daughter Kru Allen provides the hisses as McNally sings the catchy “City of Vampires.” Joe Ely and Dave Alvin each have a co-write here as well. The dusty West Texan timbre, somewhat like Ely’s, characterizes Allen’s dry voice, perfect for storytelling as he articulates well with a touch of twang
Songs like these won’t be found anywhere, emblematic of Allen’s singular creativity. He succumbs to his own rules, nobody else’s. Any connections to Melville’s novel are purely metaphorical. Allen’s stories depict Houdini in existential crisis, the death of the last stripper in town, bloodthirsty pirates (in a pseudo-sequel to Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny, the wars of Iran and Afghanistan (in the “American Childhood” suite), a vampire-infested circus, mudslides and burning mobile homes, and all manner of tragicomic disasters, bad memories, failures, and fare-thee-wells. This is stuff that will have you laughing, crying, and mostly shaking your head thinking who else could possibly come up with these stories and these lyrics.
Allen has already shared the video to “Bad Kiss,” the second song in the three-song “American Childhood” suite which is the album’s centerpiece. “Bad Kiss’ relates the story of a high school girl who enlists, leaving home and a short-live romance for a tour of duty in the Middle East. She finds history repeating itself in an endless cycle of death and horror, capped with the lyric “It’s just the war/Same fucking war/it’s always been/Never ends.” The lead single “Abandonitis” propelled by Sexton’s funky grove and Bale Allen’s djembe as Allen wields some sarcastic lines in duet with McNally such as “No you can’t operate/On your own Fate/Abandonitis don’t cut it that way.” The album begins with the ballad “Houdini Don’t Like the Spiritualists” as Allen and McNally harmonize and trade verses across nice fills from Maines’ dobro and Bukka Allen’s accordion.
If we had to guess Alvin’s co-write it would be and is “Death of the Last Stripper” to which Jo Harvey also contributes. It’s another signature story song, sad but with an infectious singalong chorus “But nobody answered/Every time we tried/We’re the only ones in the world/That even know she died.” Other highlights include the Allen/Joe Ely/Charlie Sexton penned “All That’s Left Is Fare-Thee-Well” another tour-de-force for the blended voices of Allen and McNally and the band’s mix of accordion, dobro, and guitars. The simple melody of “City of Vampires” will linger in your head for days and the sheer beauty of McNally and Jo Harvey Allen on “Harmony Two” is a soothing touch.
Terry Allen proved along ago that he is a maverick beyond measure and one our best storytellers. He does it again here, seemingly effortlessly with rough edges smoothed with McNally’s harmonies and the superb backing of the Panhandle Mystery Band for his imaginative, highly literate tales. There’s a real mix of moods, tempos, and themes so it’s best to listen to it in its entirety. You’ll be rewarded.