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That's because, at first glance, it's easy to assume that the new album is about spirituality. But it's not. Like most of Allen's albums, it's about human folly. Only in this case, the songwriter uses religion as the stage on which the characters play out their complex, often down-on-their-luck dramas--whether they're burned-out, boozed-up scofflaw musicians staving off loneliness in a New Mexico dive ("Billy the Boy," a remake of the moody epic from Allen's Pedal Steal album) or force-fed American consumers bowing down to the savior, Jesus Cash ("The Doll").
Although Allen obviously uses religion as a platform to investigate the deeper convolutions of the psyche, in Salivation he's really talking about avoidance and blame-placing and guilt, and how difficult it is for the Average Joe just to be who he is.
"I don't think this album is about religion or Jesus or Buddha," he says. "I really think it's the way, as humans, when we get backed into a corner or we're just being dumb, how we take those things and use them for our own means. Anything can be turned into its absolute opposite and used against it. And we sort of dance through that mine field all the time."
One instance where he addresses the mine field is at the end of the first song, when he reverts to, well, Donald Duck talk. Only, the method and the message are oblique; you have to read the words in the liner notes, then read between the lines: "Meanwhile, Duck talking to the sky / Hello, Daddy / Hello, Momma/Hello, old friends / Angels of mystery / Flying out flying in / There ain't no way / That's the way it goes / And heaven is just an adjustment / That moves on down the road."
Allen says that in some ways, the Duck refers to an inside joke with Butch Hancock. "Butch and I sit around and have long conversations in Duck talk," he says with a laugh. "But I think the duck is like the way we speak to ourselves and the way we speak to a higher power. It turns into such gibberish in a way--like these voices in our heads, I suppose. The thing I like about it is that it starts out kind of goofy, then it turns."
It's a poignant, eerie moment that links the rowdiness of Salivation to the hauntingly ironic admonitions of "The Doll." But what's most fascinating about the album, aside from its many musical moods (we hear accordion, mandolin, djembi, cello, bass clarinet, bazouki, harmonium, Jell-O bowl, and other instruments), is that it really is one long piece. With maybe two exceptions, the album has few pauses. It flows, in movements, from one song or ballad to another, using the piece "Red Leg Boy" as its nucleus.
A Louisiana sort of ditty with accordion, triangle, fiddle, and piano, "Red Leg Boy" is the happy, serene calm in the midst of a powerful, chattering-voices storm. Using the song as a focal point of sorts is an appropriate device, considering that the song is dedicated to Allen's father, Sled, and has a brief intro by Allen's grandson, also named Sled. And it says a lot about what matters to the renegade sculptor-musician, who has never given much of a damn about "selling" any of his creative endeavors.
"I tried to structure [the album] where everything would pretty much flow into a center and out of the center, and the center is 'Red Leg Boy,' which I think is about anybody making a choice and going after what they are. And some people are lucky enough to find that out and go at it. My dad lived to be in his 70s, and he was a baseball player till he died. He was dying of cancer, but he waited until the World Series was over. And the day of the last game, when it was over, he went into a coma and died." And the way Terry Allen tells it, it's not a sad ending at all, but a satisfying one. In his world, the "end" is only the middle.
Songwriters Concert, honoring C.B. Stubblefield and featuring Lucinda Williams, David Byrne, and Terry Allen, takes place March 23 at the Red Jacket.