You wouldn't think John Doe would know much about freedom, certainly not enough to base an album around the concept. X has always marked his spot, his erstwhile band dooming anything else he's tried to do, a choke chain keeping him from leaving the back yard of his career. For years it seems, Doe has been treading water, bouncing from forgettable film roles to short-lived X reunions to his much-neglected solo career and back again. It helps that he's always had a sense of humor about it all, especially since he traded being a punk-rock icon for playing George Strait's best buddy (Pure Country) and a porn star's greasy ex-husband (Boogie Nights)--and those were two of his better roles. On his Web site, www.thejohndoething.com, Doe jokes that his guest appearance on the now-defunct Party of Five happened because he "must've been broke that month." Glancing over his filmography, "decade" would be a more appropriate time frame.
A few missteps aside, Doe has made some musical progress, taking long strides into a post-X world instead of tentative baby steps, and only tripping occasionally. The John Doe Thing has become more of a priority in recent years, starting with 1998's For the Rest of Us EP. Freedom Is..., his first full-length since 1995's Kissingsohard, finds Doe working with new (or newer, at least) collaborators, including drummers-for-hire Joey Waronker and Josh Freese, Beasties organ grinder Money Mark Nishita, and Tom Waits guitarist Smokey Hormel. And they make, for Doe anyway, a truly new noise, much of Freedom Is... evoking Beck's Mutations (the bubbling "A Picture of This") or a sunnier Elliott Smith ("Ultimately Yrs.") rather than anything he's done before.
Then again, since it also includes an appearance by Doe's ex-wife/X singer Exene Cervenkova ("Ever After") and material that could have been left off Los Angeles ("Too Many Goddamn Bands," for one), maybe Doe's not exactly jumping into the future with both feet. Besides, no matter how hard he tries (or doesn't) part of Doe will always be the same white-trash poet that he was when he was in X and desperate. Here, though, it works to his advantage. "Someday/No Day" sums up the album's burn-out-and-fade-away theme best: "Freedom is just the end of the longest downhill climb / The bottom becomes a friend / The top is just a hill you never knew." Doe somehow manages to make hopelessness sound almost hopeful, draping his obscure-yet-simple metaphors with ringing guitar riffs and lilting refrains. When he sings, it's the saddest, happiest noise you'll ever hear--a man living in the gutter, happy to be living at all.