By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Dead-end love affair
Former Wall of Voodoo frontman and Raymond Chandler wannabe Stan Ridgway steps back into the guise of the man who's more weary than he is wise. It's a persona that fits him like an old, wrinkled suit reeking of cigarette smoke and spilled rye: Ridgway is always content playing the role of distant and impartial observer. In that nasal and pinched voice of his, Ridgway doesn't judge the losers and malcontents about which he has forever written; instead, he chronicles the false and unfortunate moves that so often land his oddballs in jail, in a ditch, or in a grave.
Ridgway has softened his edges just a bit; the music is now more open and accessible and acoustic, and perhaps even a bit more compassionate for it. If 1986's The Big Heat played out like a stark and chilling soundtrack set to gangster film, a decade later Ridgway has expanded his purview to accommodate characters more sympathetic and less pathetic. He has abandoned the psychotics and beggars and victims, left them to die on the roadside or in the convenience store (shot dead, of course, by the store owner). Ridgway's world now seems less definite, more chaotic. He no longer clearly separates the good from the bad, the winners from the losers, the insane from the merely mad.
Here, he adopts the voice of Johnny Cash one minute, bidding a fond farewell to the late guitarist Luther Perkins, then he becomes the desperate would-be lover begging you to "starve me in the basement for a couple of weeks" just for some affection; he covers Bob Dylan ("As I Went Out One Morning"), then hollers at the world that he's "so angry at someone," though no one in particular. Everyone wins, and loses, in Ridgway's world: You can get away with murder, but you'll get killed by a drunk driver on the way home.
Skip the every-other-selection narration from Kathy Acker--the "post-modern" author who's made a living from not making sense, a mark of genius among those who have never actually read her work--and you're left with a mediocre Mekons record that substitutes dance tracks and sailor songs for the sarcasm and fire that made this band geniuses among those who never actually heard their best records. But this is "art rock," and art rock doesn't allow for passion, only so-called intellect. And rock and roll doesn't come from the brain, even if you're the Mekons.