Alejandro Escovedo’s 2008 release Real Animal easily topped my Albums of the Year list last year. It probably would have popped up on this list as well if not for Alejandro’s tremendous 2001 effort A Man Under the Influence. Of course, I’m limiting myself to one album per artist on this list. This has to be the one.
It will probably be hard for me to articulate exactly why this album is one of my favorites. I always find it especially hard to write about Alejandro’s music because of the complexity it presents. In doing research for this post, I found separate reviews that compared parts of this album to Hank Williams Sr., Leonard Cohen, John Cale, and The Rolling Stones. It’s hard to believe that one album or one artist could possibly conjure up comparisons to such a diverse group of artists… but this album does.
Alejandro expertly captures Williams’ heartbreak, Cohen’s poetry, Cale’s punk experimentalism, and The Stones’ Rock & Roll swagger. He does it all while also creating his own sound of textured, Austin roots rock. There is a reason No Depression magazine named Alejandro their artist of the decade for the 1990’s.
As for the themes presented on the album… It would be easy, given Alejandro’s well publicized history with drug and alcohol abuse, to assume that the title referred to being under the influence of some sort of narcotics or distilled spirits. Closer inspections, though, reveal the songwriter to be affected by the far more intoxicating influence of love in all of its forms.
In some cases, it’s the love of an idea that motivates the characters in the songs. The album opens with “Wave,” a song based on the story of how Alejandro’s father first came to the United States from Mexico. Alejandro’s grandparents had left for the States when Alejandro’s father was very young. As a boy, Alejandro’s father would go to the local train yard with his grandmother to wave at the trains as they left to journey across the border. They would wave to those who, like Alejandro’s grandparents, had snuck aboard the trains in an attempt to find a better life, and a better way to provide for their families. When he was twelve years old, Alejandro’s father jumped on one of those trains motivated by the idea of seeing his parents again and joining them in their new land. He never told his grandmother what he was about to do, and she was left behind, not knowing that she was waving at the train that carried her grandson away.
The album continues with “Rosalie,” a tender song that tells of a love carried out through letters between two lovers separated by a border and miles of desert. The love fades, however, in “Across the River” as Alejandro is forced to ask the question, “What kind of love destroys another?”
In fact, most of the tunes on this album deal with heartbreak in one way or another. “Rhapsody” reads as an apology to a departing lover even though the narrator can never seem to find just the proper way to express himself. In the plaintive “Don’t Need You” the singer sounds as though he is trying to convince himself of that fact rather than actually declare the statement to someone else.
Even my favorite track on the album, the fiery “Castanets,” finds Alejandro dealing with inflamed passions for a woman he can’t stand to be around. He begins by running through a list of things he loves about this woman… her tangled hair, the sunshine on her dress, the way she “turns me on like a pick up truck.” In the end though, this is a woman who drives him so crazy that he finds he likes “her better when she walks away.” This song is built around a Hall of Fame worthy guitar riff and is not only my favorite song on the album, but also one of my favorites of all time.
This is easily the most complex album on this list and one that is worth spending some time with. I think that’s what it takes to full come to appreciate this one. Alejandro and producer Chris Stamey created an album that possesses layers and layers of sound and rewards multiple listens. You can start with the two tracks that I highlighted in this post.