Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World was released twenty years ago last week, i.e. June 28, 1994. It’s nice to be able to track dates like this down on the internet because then I’m able to take a quick leap back through time and stick a time-stamp on a certain memory that previously had been jangling around in my pocket like loose change. The memory isn’t anything dramatic, it’s just one of those things you weirdly remember for an unclear reason, and it’s of sitting in my family kitchen reading my parents’ copy of Newsweek and coming across a Freedy Johnston review. I had a love/hate relationship with my parents’ periodicals by this point in my life; I loved the way the Sunday New York Times arts section made me feel urbane, but I had started to suspect Newsweek and its washed-out middle-of-the-roadness. Still, in a time before I had access to the internet, magazines were my best connection to whatever the hell was going on outside my tiny town of 350 people.
The reviewer had a lot of nice things to say about Freedy Johnston. He mentioned a lyric about loving a mortician’s daughter and drawing your heart on a dusty coffin lid, talked about sad and spare writing and chiming guitars, said something about an electron microscope, and then mentioned the record was produced by Butch Vig who I already knew as the producer for Nevermind and whose name made me decide I’d spend money from my summer dishwashing job on the CD.
When I brought This Perfect World home I immediately liked “Bad Reputation,” but the other songs on weren’t what the Newsweek review had made me imagine and want. They sounded a little too slick and polished, and I was at a point where I desperately wanted something more rough and weird out of music but something that didn’t have to do with electric guitars. I didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t know where to look, and Freedy Johnston wasn’t what I was looking for. I had to keep listening to the CD, though, because I had spent money on it.
As I kept listening to This Perfect World I realized that it wasn’t the main thing I thought I wanted but that it represented another thing I hadn’t realized I wanted. The music on the radio and on MTV at that time was still all heavily indebted to the angsty electric sludge of Seattle (Kurt Cobain had died just two months earlier) but was also just starting to bifurcate into more song-oriented “unplugged” style-stuff, and I wasn’t quite happy with either. The grunge stuff felt dumb and formulaic to me, while the “unplugged” stuff, though more song-oriented, felt wussy. Freedy Johnston was in the middle. He was using acoustic guitars, but he was singing about murder and suicide and middle age and pedophiles. The ends of his lines didn’t rhyme. He wrote in character, with a tone that wasn’t far off from Raymond Chandler. This was all stuff that I didn’t fully realize you could do. Even putting a cello in a rock song felt new to me at that point. On top of all this, he wrote beautiful vocal melodies. When a Freedy Johnston melody would start skipping high up the octave only to gracefully land on a word that completely didn’t rhyme, I got a thrilling feeling of something that felt both incorrect and right. It wasn’t the rough, broken-down folk music that I pictured when I read the Newsweek review, but it worked on me and it changed what I wanted out of songwriting.
I went away to college and, even though “Bad Reputation” was still a song I’d hear come on the radio, it still felt like my personal secret that this guy had a whole album of songs that good (along with a whole other album before it that’s maybe even better and a first album, The Trouble Tree, that’s uneven but has a couple of brilliant songs). And then, eventually, the spell wore off. Radio stations picked up another single, “Dolores.” It was a fun, pretty take on Lolita that I’d always loved, but when I heard it on the radio I heard the tameness in it and the way it no longer felt like mine and I backed away. And I was a college kid whose taste was changing every couple of months by that point. Commercial radio was now playing Brit-Pop. College Radio was playing stuff they called “indie rock,” or even weird terms like “slow-core” or “post-rock.” I was catching up on the stranger, more abrasive underground music I had missed out on in highschool and was checking CDs out of my college library with music on them from Africa and Ireland and India. I wasn’t in rural New Hampshire anymore, and the world was a thousand times bigger than I had realized. Freedy Johnston got washed away in the tide of all the new music that was suddenly swimming around my head.
I always carried a torch for Freedy though, and, over the years, I’ve connected with a whole lot of other musicians for whom he’s similarly an old flame. Songwriting nerds always perk up when you mention “Bad Reputation,” and some people will corner you if you bring up Freedy, will want to ask you which your favorite song on Can You Fly is. Now that time has flowed over and past those songs, the parts of them that glitter feel brighter.
I wasn’t sure which Freedy Johnston song to put here to show you what I’m talking about. “Bad Reputation” is undeniable but you might already know it. “Evie’s Tears” is one of my favorite Freedy melodies but I don’t want its poppiness to turn you off. “Responsible” is probably my single-favorite Johnston “character” song, but it’s from the 1992 album Can You Fly and I didn’t discover it until later so I’d have to go back to the beginning of this piece and rewrite it and then I wouldn’t have gotten to this particular sentence of this paragraph anyway. So I’m going to put up the last song from This Perfect World, which was my sleeper favorite back in 1994, and which I related to then for the same reasons I relate to it now because it’s about the feeling that pretty soon you’re going to fail and bottom out and that when you do everybody is going to be waiting to laugh at you with all their friends. This is a feeling that grips a lot of alcoholics especially, and I think that’s kind of what this song is specifically about, in the same way that Randy Newman’s brilliant “Guilty” is about that. But it’s deeper and broader than that, and it’s really a song about totally, utterly blowing it, complete with melodramatic visits to the afterlife (Hell, of course) and to the other side of the rainbow, where angels wait with mercy. The world-weariness of the song was something I thought I could really relate to when I was a dumb kid who believed life was deeply sad and tragic in a beautiful way, before I grew up and realized life actually really is deeply sad and tragic, but in a boring way.
(A note: I couldn’t find a link to this on YouTube, so here’s the audio from elsewhere.)
(By the way, I just saw Freedy is currently raising money for a new album! You can donate here.)
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