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Alejandro Escovedo
The Boxing Mirror
Back Porch

To say that Alejandro Escovedo has had a couple of bad years is something of an understatement. In April 2003, after a performance in Arizona, Escovedo collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where it was discovered that he was suffering from serious complications resulting from Hepatitis C. After several weeks in the hospital, staring death in the face, he embarked on a grueling path of recovery, taking medications that made him even sicker than the Hep C did, and wondering if he would ever make music again.

The Boxing Mirror, his first studio album in five years, finds Escovedo facing his illness, the ensuing personal confusion and doubt, his relationships, and the concept of family with honesty, compassion and, ultimately, a sense of survival and joy.

The album opens with "Arizona," perhaps the most direct exploration of his recent ordeal. After a wavering synth introduction, Hector Muñoz's drums and the strings of Susan Voelz, Brian Standefer, and Matt Fish push the song into a hesitant, swaying pace. "Have another drink on me/ I've been empty since Arizona," Escovedo sings, with a mixture of bitterness and acceptance. The second verse opens in a similar manner: "Blow another smoke ring for me/ I've been straight so straight since Arizona." These lines acknowledge the changes Escovedo has made in his life since his collapse, giving up both drinking and smoking. When one temptation is abandoned, however, another usually emerges. In Escovedo's case, the new temptation came in the form of another woman: "One kiss just led to another/ One kiss just fades into lover" (Escovedo met his fourth wife during his hospital stay). While the push and pull of these temptations may have been difficult and disorienting, even more troubling for Escovedo is the realization that he is no longer the person he believed himself to be: "I turned my back on me/ And I faced the face of who I thought I was." Coursing through the heart of the song is the idea of change, of how one ending blends seamlessly into a new beginning, and of how truly head-spinning such major changes can be. Escovedo sings with a mixture of anger, guilt, confusion, and acceptance. Underscoring the wash of emotions is the guitar work of Jon Dee Graham and the keyboards of John Cale (who also produced the album), which never allow the song to rest on solid ground. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that Escovedo manages to encapsulate such a wide range of emotions, such a complex experience, in the simplest of language and in only two astoundingly brief verses.

The lyrical richness and musical complexity of "Arizona" run throughout The Boxing Mirror, and the beauty and simple truths Escovedo pulls from these songs are often breathtaking. Combine that with the images he uses to explore his subject matter, and you end up with a collection of songs that reveal the pleasure and pain found in the acceptance of mortality, the necessity of family, and the peace and beauty of survival. In "Dear Head on the Wall," for instance, Escovedo uses a mute picture as a representation of our often-willing embrace of ignorance, of our refusal to acknowledge the truth about ourselves: "Dear head on the wall/ Afraid to mention the deaths/ That I can't stuff into my mouth." "Died a Little Today" continues the exploration of mortality and change Escovedo began in "Arizona," focusing on the lessons hidden in the depths of suffering: "Gonna learn how to give/ Not to simply get by/ Or to barely hang on/ For the sake of goodbye/ But maybe you'll know/ We died a little today."

In the tender and heartbreaking "Evita's Lullaby" Escovedo explores the death of his father and the impact it has on his mother: "As your last breath hung forever/ Were you dancing behind the beat?/ Hold her close now/ Don't let her go now/ Take her with you where you sleep." Love, according to Escovedo, continues beyond death, and the connections we forge in this world are perhaps the only things strong enough to survive the changes we face at the end of our lives. The song serves as a fitting connection between the themes of mortality and relationships that inhabit Escovedo's songs. "The Ladder," easily the loveliest song Escovedo, or anyone for that matter, has ever written, finds Escovedo exploring the importance of the connections we make with others. Over a soft accordion and guitar line that beautifully captures his Mexican-American roots, Escovedo sings: "Let's sleep away the pain we suffer/ The medicine is in our dreams/ Fly away like Caracaras/ This ladder climbs from me to you." The only relief we need, the only escape worthy enough, is that found in the other.

Musically, The Boxing Mirror continues Escovedo's use of a variety of styles and instrumentation. Throughout the album, guitar, bass, and drums combine with strings and accordion to create the distinctive sound Escovedo is known for. The presence of producer Cale is felt in the more adventurous sonic flourishes and ambient noises coloring songs such as "Arizona," "Looking for Love," and the typically Escovedo-like rockers "Break This Time" and "Sacramento and Polk." In the latter song, the fuzzy, screeching guitars and driving bass provide a perfect setting for the "Thorazine haze" Escovedo sings about.

Given the circumstances informing its creation and its subject matter, The Boxing Mirror could easily have been a clichéd, maudlin and self-important album. And in the hands of a lesser artist, it would certainly have turned out that way. Escovedo, however, easily avoids this trap and creates an album full of vitality that is smart and intelligent without being boring. More importantly, however, it is simply incredible.

by Lee Templeton

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