January 21, 2002

Calvin Johnson "What Was Me"

I'd like to set up a wildlife sanctuary for Calvin Johnson. His brand of rough, deep, and off-key folkie-style lo-fi rock really is a dying breed--killed off by, ironically, the DIY ethos of home-recording that he helped create with his former (and lasting legacy) band, Beat Happening. Let's not forget that his great label, K, is also the best, most successful example of DIY ethos at work. It's been a few years since his last album, but What Was Me breaks the years of wondering "O, Calvin, Where Art Thou?"

This is his first out-and-out solo album in his long, storied career--and it's really cool that it's coming out now. He sounds--stronger? More mature? Older and wiser? Sure. Instead of lo-fi folk, this is--and what most critics missed completely--a blues record. We're not talking about blues-rock here, my friend. When he sings acapella--which he does on many songs here--we're talking field recordings here. Chain-gang music. Rock-busting music.

And that voice! Calvin's voice really does sound a lot stronger than ever before, sounding a lot like Johnny Cash, with a hint of Stephin Merritt. Maybe it's the production, or maybe it's the fact that he's not hiding behind an R&B band or Doug Martsch, but Calvin doesn't need to hide behind gimmicks to be effective. I'm personally affected by "What Was Me"--a seeming epitaph for his heart. It's fitting, as description of this album referred to him in the past tense, and I believe that the term "posthumous" was used, leading me to think that Calvin had died! My favorite number here is the gospel ya-ya of "Lightnin' Rod For Jesus," a downright authentic spiritual number with The Gossip's Beth Ditto, whose deep-booming sultry voice is angelic foil to Johnson's world-weary, low-down ways.

What Was Me is what Johnson is. Pure, unadulterated imperfection. You can't go wrong with that, and it's a wonder why he's waited so long to release a solo record. He's got music in his soul, and soul in his music. What Was Me is a pure explosion of the blues, and more than a mighty fine new chapter to kick off his next decade of making music.

--Joseph Kyle

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