Just before his infamous 1966 tour, Bob Dylan did a two-hour show on WBAI with Bob Fass, taking phone calls on the air. Whenever people would complain that he wasn’t writing protest songs anymore, Dylan would respond angrily, and I’m paraphrasing here: “Don’t you see all that’s in one line of what I’m doing now?” Ed Askew’s second album brings that broadcast to mind, dealing in aphorisms and allusions in the quaveringly beautiful way only he can.
After 36 years, Destijl has made it possible to view what transpired following Askew’s brilliant Ask the Unicorn, recorded for ESP in 1971. Conceived to simulate a continuous performance, the album’s rough-hewn nature has aged little, and it should appeal to those in pursuit of the not-so-new “weird” American dream. Yet, there’s something naturally other-worldly about these brief tracks, patchwork snatches and fragments of crystalline illumination that demonstrate influence while transcending it at every turn. Sure, the title track has a Dylanesque harmonica, and it’s the most conventional here in terms of chord sequence, but the contrasted day and night imagery, balanced perfectly in the no-time universe of the “little eyes,” brings new depth to the love-song trope. The verses are almost haiku, delivered in Askew’s impassioned quaver, and “Songs for Pilots” treats war and peace in a similar way. “Rotary motors play songs for pilots” - the line embodies the transcendence that comes from the intense contemplation of interactive opposites at the heart of myth.
At lighter moments, Askew’s voice and delivery can invoke the Incredible String Band, as does his Martin Tipple, a stringed instrument tuned much differently than your average guitar. The chord progressions in these miniature journeys make that clear, as they wend their chromatic ways through Askew’s hazily romantic visions. Strophic structures abound, as “Oh, All the Gold and Green Eyes” attests, but each is subverted, either by some outlandishly beautiful chord sequence or, on “Little Infinite Love Song,” by silence. Even the crisp swinging blues of “Waiting in the Station” is riddled with chord substitutions and slily abstract humor.
The album is a revelation, and it raises the question: Whatever happened to this poet in the ensuing years? I have heard that recordings exist, and it would be wonderful if they shared this heretofore lost gem’s happy fate.