Back in the early ‘80s an Austin band managed to blend the brashness of punk with the riffs of bar rock and country twang. That’s no small feat. Punks tend to disdain the retro-gloss and masculinity of classic rock, and most country musicians have no patience for spiky hair and permanent sneers. The band was the True Believers, founded by Texas native Alejandro Escovedo. What the True Believers lacked in subtlety they made up for in energy and volume, and their live shows became famous for their drunken abandon.
The True Believers have been gone for decades, but Escovedo has never stopped making music. In the meantime, the skinny, ardent Mexican-American kid from San Antonio who couldn’t decide if he wanted to be Joe Strummer, Roger McGuinn or Bruce Springsteen became himself. He also became a godfather of alt-country. His stature grew after Escovedo almost died of hepatitis C in 2005, but came back with an album of catharsis and contemplation, 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, produced by one of his mentors, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale.
Escovedo’s newest album, Street Songs of Love (out June 29 on Fantasy Records), is an urban poet’s tribute to all things amor. It’s full of bold, striving, sin-soaked, redemption-seeking songs that roots-rock fans flock to at summer festivals. Opener “Anchor” sounds like Tom Petty’s “Refugee” sewn together with the Clash’s “London Calling.” It’s just a straight rock beat, a few outsized power chords, and a chorus of undirected, unabashed, undiluted ardor for ardor’s sake. “I’m in love with love,” Escovedo sings. He may not be subtle, but he knows himself.
The song is refreshing for being so free of abstraction. Maybe Escovedo is too old to fuss with metaphor, or maybe he’s seen too much of life (and come too close to death) to care, but on Street Songs of Love—with its brassy production, female backup singers, and shout choruses—subtlety is unnecessary. It would just get in the way. If you’re a fool for someone’s love (“Silver Cloud”), you might as well say so. If you believe you’ve got to have faith in the one you love (“Faith”), then grab your friend Bruce Springsteen to help you sing about it. And if you’re looking to connect with your suddenly distant, 17-year-old punk rocker son who reminds you just a bit of yourself at that age (“Down in the Bowery”), pick up your acoustic guitar, strum a simple rhythm any dive bar drunk could sway to, and tell the kid, “Everybody’s gotta feel some things they don’t wanna feel sometimes.”
No need to fuss about it. After all, it’s only rock and roll.