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Calvin Johnson
What Was Me

Remember that scene from Oliver Stone's film "The Doors" where the band, along with Pam, gets high in the desert and at one point — between the vomiting, twirling and spirit-chasing — the group moans along to "My Wild Love"? Remember how Morrison bellowed so low, sounding especially fucked-up? And the eerie bongo beats, feeling so distant they trailed behind somewhere in the foothills? Remember how the four had their arms draped loosely around one another's necks as they swayed irregularly to and fro? How the music felt like it came, not from those who created it, but from the atmosphere of broken reality it embodied?

Calvin Johnson's first collection of tunes he penned alone, dubbed What Was Me, shares a similar feel. Though likely having nothing to do with acid trips or barren Californian deserts, the album exudes that same minimalist, primitive energy that escaped the sweaty pores of The Doors' members that break-through of an "I saw God" kind of day.

Stripped of musical conventions, each song off the intimate, folky What Was Me takes on a life of its own, separate from Johnson's, primarily because he is so quick to give it all away. Armed with nothing more than a deep, baritone voice and an acoustic guitar, Johnson (founder of K Records) crafted each song with nothing to hide and an entire soul to bare. With complexity and layering absent, the record is so simple and raw that honesty and emotion stand at the forefront of this dreary, heartfelt record. Johnson's dark, unique songs often feel as if they could've been written a hundred years ago, recalling a time when folk songs were cherished as an aid in surviving hardship, the sort of songs not passed around by recording but by word of mouth and shared experience.

Each song evokes a time when pop music — recording, production, effects, etc. — did not exist. For instance, "Lightnin' Rod for Jesus," which features vocal contributions from The Gossip's Beth Ditto, feels like a old gospel song shared by those in hard times as if it were the only tool available to endure life's troubles. Flowing on pretty, harp-like acoustic plucks at the guitar, the airy, melancholy "Warm Days" sounds on the verge of tears while the title track is, although still dark, relatively upbeat, with a stomping, sing-along feel.

The a cappella "Ode to St. Valentine" finds Johnson — of Dub Narcotic Sound System, Beat Happening and the Halo Benders — performing a duet with Mirah, who's also a K Records artist with an incredibly passionate voice. Offering an intimate diary-like feel, many songs off the snail's-paced What Was Me speak of loves either longed for or lost. "When it's you that I'm wanting, the past comes back to haunt me," Johnson sings on the album's opener, "The Past Comes Back to Haunt Me," sounding both desperate and hopeless. "Can We Kiss?" is more upbeat and hopeful, with a lighthearted melody and bright words: "Can we find a way to sidestep the usual, strange unveiling?/ Can we kiss?/ Can we kiss?/ What would happen/ If we happened to kiss?/ Would the clouds curl up?/ Would the earth still exist?/ ... Would the sky fall/ Like I'm falling for you?" Johnson coos sweetly.

In all, and as the title implies, What Was Me feels like Johnson's attempt at reflecting on his life from an afterlife viewpoint or — like The Doors in the desert — a mind-altered subjectivity. It's as if he's made something so much his own, he was able to let it go — allowing it to breathe with a life and soul all its own.

by Jenny Tatone

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