Back when this album first came out, in 1994, a friend and I became obsessed with it. Over the course of a month and many emails composed on work time (we happened to work at the same place) we shared favorite moments and phrases, puzzled over the songs. Speculated on the story they outlined.
The narrative we arrived on was out of a Douglas Sirk movie. There are three main characters: the unnamed male protagonist (for convenience we called him Fred, Freedy’s real name), his wife/girlfriend Evie, and their daughter. Fred is in an abusive relationship with Evie that ultimately leads to her death: whether he hounds her into suicide or is actually involved is unclear. Guilt-stricken, Fred abandons his daughter and leaves for New York City, where he becomes a kind of underground man, disappearing into the crowd, leading a liminal existence of alcohol and prostitutes. Years later, he is diagnosed with something incurable (again, not specified) and decides to try to make amends with his daughter. She cruelly rejects him. He is alone in the end, delivering a grim benediction on his own misspent life: “I can hear the laughs.”
Our great breakthrough was to think of the songs as all sung by the main character (thanks, M.A. in English!) This is Fred reviewing his life, searching for reason or justification. The fractured chronology in which the songs are sequenced reflects the simultaneity of past and present brought on by his imminent death. The “you” the songs address is sometimes the wife, sometimes the daughter, sometimes the singer himself and sometimes shifts within a song between these or some combination of them. Fred tries on different points of view: Evie’s lover in “Evie’s Tears”–did the discovery of this lover lead to the violence other songs allude to?–his daughter in “Disappointed Man.” “Two Lovers Stop” and “Across the Avenue,” the first about a suicide pact and the second about the intrusion of death into a loving relationship, seem all the more poignant if considered the deathbed fantasies of someone whose own life has been so distant from such ennobling situations. My friend even considered “Delores” as indicating an incestuous relationship between Fred and his daughter, or at least a longing for one, though I was never entirely convinced of that.
Did we really believe Freedy Johnston had conceived all this on purpose? No, but it didn’t matter. We found the songs, with their repetitions in images and geography, their suggestions and ellipses and sudden chilling specificity, so compelling that we wanted to fill in the blanks, make them fit together. We were willing to think of Freedy as an omniscient creator, totally in control of his material, because the material was so much more rewarding that way. Also because it was fun.
Note to other musicians: this does not always work. Case in point: the rest of Freedy’s career. From here, he made one more half-good album and then two kinda bad ones. The bad ones were ballad-heavy affairs mostly about treacherous women and how sad they made him feel. The songwriting remained elliptical–we weren’t sure of the exact nature of the treachery or Freedy’s depression–but elliptical in a frustrating, will-you-get-to-the-point-already way. An analogy (for me at least) would be “Blue Velvet” vs. “Mulholland Drive.”
Freedy is still out there doing shows, though, and a whirl through YouTube displays his impeccable taste in cover versions. I think he may even have an album out of those: I have to admit after the two kinda bad CDs I haven’t kept up. But I do still remember seeing him soon after this wonderful album came out at a free outdoor show at the Charlestown Navy Yard, bright sunshine, wind in his even-then receding hair, singing these haunted songs to a small crowd that grew as he went on and who by the end seemed as captivated as I was.