Freedy Johnston

Five years after his perfect record, This Perfect World, Freedy Johnston proves why it never pays to get too close to a singer-songwriter. For a while there, Johnston made adult pop records that transcended the genre -- meaning, they were too smart for the heart, but too tender for the head. Loaded down with songs about New York City and the lonely people and "barefoot whores" who fill its crowded but sometimes barren spaces, This Perfect World sounded as though it was dipped in teardrops and wet kisses at the CD manufacturing plant, then hung to dry from the Statue of Liberty. Should have known the brilliance would have ended there; it always does. When you think it can't get any better, too often it doesn't. Never Home, his 1997 still-life, proved as much: lots of characters, but no character.

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.