Johnny Dowd Cruel Words

Since embarking on a full-time music career in 1998 at the age of 50, Johnny Dowd has become a throwback to the kind of artist once so prevalent in America: one unafraid to expose the harsh realities of life, but in a musically uplifting way. This sixth release finds Dowd’s keen awareness of society’s dark underbelly as sharp as ever, but with the help of drummer Brian Wilson and keyboardist Michael Stark, Cruel Words is just as enjoyable for its infectious, swampy grooves. Such a dichotomy is unnerving most of the time, but ultimately helps to drive the point home on tracks like "Miracles Never Happen” and the timely "Praise God.” A few detours into jazzy territory provide some respite from Dowd’s verbal onslaught, but even a seemingly tacked-on cover of "Johnny B. Goode” — his frequent show closer — contains enough menace to almost make it sound like a tragic story. It’s a curse that Dowd appears to carry willingly, and well. In many ways he has become one of the true heirs to the tattered poetic legacy of Kerouac and Bukowski. And like their work, not all of Cruel Words is palatable upon first encounter. But when Dowd hits the mark, as he more often than not does, the ugly truth is strangely beautiful.

This album is already being described as "career-defining.” Could you sense something special going on while you were making it? I’ve liked everything I’ve done, but in retrospect maybe it does sound a little bit more accessible, even though I wasn’t thinking about that. It’s probably more groove-oriented than the others, which people seem to relate to better. Most of these songs we played live for about a year, and that was a big difference.

Was that part of the decision to finally record "Johnny B. Goode”? Yeah, it’s always been a fun song to play live. A couple people told me it wasn’t a good idea to record it, that it’s corny. But rock’n’roll’s about being corny as far as I can tell. I would never do a cover that I didn’t feel I could make my own.

You’re obviously seeing a lot of darkness in the world that’s been inspiring you too. Yeah. It’s been more depressing than inspiring. I end up writing about characters that don’t seem to have a big voice in pop music. The other side of the tracks is just the world I know best. I wouldn’t mind writing more conventional pop songs, but I never listen to that stuff so I wouldn’t know where to begin. If I ever tried to do that, it would probably be the most bizarre album I ever did. (Bongo Beat)