Roky Erickson with Okkervil River - "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" (True Love Cast Out All Evil)
First things first: The very fact that True Love Cast Out All Evil exists is reason enough to at least partially celebrate it. Will Sheff and the folks of Okkervil River should be commended for choosing to make an album with a fragile artist in the twilight of his career, one who could so easily slip into the ether. Roky Erickson is an undeniable legend and, as the howling shaman behind the 13th Floor Elevators lysergic choogle, one of the pioneers of psychedelic rock. But he’s also complicated and quite troubled man. His struggles have been exhaustively chronicled elsewhere and there is no need to rehash them here; though, suffice it to say, they have left him a risky sell in an evermore fickle and memory-deficient music industry. Sheff handles Erickson with care, though, making his voice sound both tender and strong, and allowing the Texas twang to come out a bit too. Sheff’s admiration is genuine and he gives Roky a solid musical platform to record another album.
It would be understandable if one was to simply leave things at that, but the fact is, this is a heavily flawed album, at times frustratingly so. It can feel painfully sentimental: full of sweeping string arrangements, dramatic instrumental surges, and celestial soundscapes. It’s as if Sheff wants to hammer home the point that this one-time psychedelic warrior is nearing the end of his life, cramming nearly every track with the sum-total emotional weight of Erickson’s life experience. Thus, great songs such as "Be and Bring Home" and "Forever" come off as contrived attempts to give Erickson his own version of Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” with the end result sounding more like Dewey Cox’s "Beautiful Ride." It’s not so much that Erickson deserves better, it’s just that he doesn’t require all the elegiac excess.
Sheff has interspersed throughout the album snippets of the various raw demos Erickson made during his time in Rusk State Mental Hospital — a large chunk of which can be found on the excellent, though somewhat rough-sounding Never Say Goodbye, released on Emperor Jones in 1999. Those tracks seize upon Erickson’s enormous talent for tortured, aching hymns. But more than anything else, they reveal how little one needs to do to make Erickson shine. Certainly, those demos could benefit from an improvement on their field-recording-grade quality, but not in the manner that Sheff seems to think. A perfect example of this well-intended yet overreaching production is the revamped version of "Think of As One," which appeared on the above-mentioned Never Say Goodbye. Sheff couches the song in propulsive percussion, slinky rhythms, and horn section. Compared to the haunting beauty of the original, it’s nothing less than a tone-deaf arrangement.
Though the whole Rick Ruben/Johnny Cash stripped down approach to career revivals has become a cliché, I can think of few artists who would benefit more from such an approach. True Love Cast Out All Evil is at its best when Erickson’s songs are the most unadorned ("Ain’t Blues Sad" or "Please Judge," for example). He still has quite a set of pipes on him, strong enough to alone carry whatever songs he writes. Hopefully, someone will have the sense to let him do just that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Will Sheff. Then again, if Roky is pleased with him, we can just leave it at that.