Gone Out of Your Mind
t might not be fair, but it’s nonetheless likely true that Mike Johnson’s bland, John Q. Public name has helped consign him to the scrapheap of generic singer-songwriters, at least among potential listeners unfamiliar with his lengthy history working with Dinosaur Jr., Mark Lanegan, and Caustic Resin. Other solo artists—John Darnielle, Sam Beam, Conor Oberst, and even Chris Carrabba—figured out long ago how to escape the singer-songwriter ghetto by framing their work under band names, but Johnson trudges forward oblivious to his own marginalization, pursuing his bleak vision with a locked jaw and a weary resignation.
Gone Out of Your Mind, his fifth album, offers something of a departure from the sound of his earlier work, even if it's ensconced in the same moody feel. Gone are the folk/country flavors (excepting two brief acoustic instrumental bookends) and the comparatively ornate (read: occasional horns) arrangements, replaced by a distortion-coated guitar brawn laced with pedal steel guitar and organ frills. It’s full of fat, juicy solos as minimalist as typical Neil Young fretboard-flailing, but deliberately sapped of energy to better reflect Johnson’s melancholy disposition. Individual songs may sometimes disappear into drones, but the decidedly non-urgent desperation makes for a cohesive and affecting unified whole, one that evokes hopeless, downtrodden city bars as easily as lengthy drives to nowhere on rainy state highways. It’s all-purpose angst; it might run like molasses, but it heads for the bottom and gets there on its own time.
For a brief early moment, Johnson seems geared up to lose the hellhounds on his trail. “On Track” commences with a blast of dirty, chugging guitar-stomp, as Johnson declares, “I'm on track now,” in his deep, low voice—a little more grit and it could be Lanegan, a little more breathiness and it could be some sad, lost goth icon. But as he repeats the phrase over and over it becomes less lyric than mantra, less believable assurance than halfhearted attempt by Johnson to convince himself of its truth.
As it turns out, most of the songs that follow suggest it’s not Johnson but a friend/lover/relation that has slipped off the track. The MO, once set, remains in rigorous stasis. Johnson builds around lyrics stripped down to repeated phrases, which drift into numb meaninglessness until guitar solos arrive to facilitate the songs' descent into the ineffable. The title track finds Johnson chanting, “they’re not your friends anymore” into oblivion, while “Can't Get It Right” settles in on its title phrase. Even Jamaican reggae star Junior Byles’ “Fade Away” easily falls into place, reinvented as a lengthy, churning dirge well-distanced from the original. Johnson’s lack of interest in sharp wordplay or facile melody leaves the album without standout tracks per se, but at the same time he effectively inhabits the LP format; he’s using an album to create mood, not to collect disparate nuggets of showy songwriting.
It’s tempting to think Johnson could lift the title of any given 1970s Tom Waits album and find a wider audience by presenting his work in a faux-group context. On the other hand, such a tactic hasn't exactly led to fame or fortune for Idaho, who are comparable to Johnson but have worked in a reverse direction (from noisy squall to quiet calm). Gone Out of Your Mind shows little interest in the question, accepting its invisibility with appropriate defeatism. Mike Johnson’s personal Slough of Despond may be a small puddle unlikely to attract attention with splashy waves or expansive coasts, but its gloomy waters run deep, and they’re as good a place as any to drown.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-07-18