So it is with Blue Days, Black Night: Every now and then, a rose will peek through the cement cracks, but too often it's one dull melody after the next until the record sounds like a single featuring 11 variations on a lone, dismal theme. Johnston's whine -- always a strength, like Randy Newman's groan or Tom Waits' growl -- suddenly sounds like an impediment; hard to get to the heart when you can't stand looking at the skin. From the opening moments, when he goes out in a "homemade boat" and discovers "a drowned city was never saved" -- a metaphor whose meaning isn't worth struggling to retrieve from the bottom of the ocean -- Johnston comes off sounding tired, bored. Gone is the charged-up melancholy of "Bad Reputation" or "Tearing Down This Place" or his cover of "Wichita Lineman"; in its place is just this piercing whine about nothing at all, something about how he'd trade "my own course for the underwater life."
What made his earlier albums, especially Perfect World and its predecessor Can You Fly, so valuable was the way he turned everyday details into the stuff of epic disaster by setting the saddest stories to the most lovely pop imaginable. He can still write a decent line, still tell an honest story, but this is a record; you gotta have the songs, man. Familiar, even poignant, sometimes caustic are his tales of the ex-girlfriend who phones for a sympathetic ear during yet another breakup; or the one about the man leaving his empty home during a snowstorm, hearing the "hollow" sound of a door as it slams shut; or the one about two lovers who meet in a dream but never connect. The only problem is, there's nary a memorable tune among this cheapskate dozen. As it stands, Blue Day would have made a better collection of poetry.