Terry Allen is a Lubbock-born singer-songwriter whose music is but one facet of a larger artistic identity. Allen is into everything: sculpture, theater, mixed media installation, painting, writing, performance art. There’s nothing commercial about him. Like a Tom Waits of the American Southwest, Allen is daring, dark, funny, devoted to language, and way, way ahead of the creative curve.
To celebrate the 2016 deluxe reissues of his first two landmark albums, Allen will recreate them live. The first act will find Terry performing “Juarez” solo, and for the second act, he’ll be joined by an all-star band featuring Lloyd Maines, Glenn Fukunaga, Bukka Allen, Davis McLarty, and more for “Lubbock on Everything.”
Admittedly, Allen’s brand of Southern (dis)comfort may not be for everyone. But it should come as no small relief to his patient and not-so-patient faithful alike that the passage of 14 years hasn’t dulled the man’s razor-sharp, serrated wit a whit. On his brand new, long awaited Bottom of the World, heʼs still licking his chops — this time wryly pondering, among other things, the nagging damnation of the saved: “Do they dream of hell in heaven? / Do they regret how hard they tried? / And wish now they’d been much more sinful / and repented just a minute before they died?” Taboo-taunting questions — not to mention songs — just don’t get much more Terry Allen than that. And yet it would do Allen’s 11th album a disservice to label Bottom of the World as business as usual, even with the allowance that there’s never been anything remotely “usual” about Allen’s artistic sensibilities. Rest assured that the 11 new tracks on Bottom of the World reaffirm Allen’s standing as one of the most idiosyncratic and cunningly provocative voices to ever blow out that peculiarly fertile songwriter hotbed of Lubbock, Texas. But the presentation is quite unlike any other record Allen’s ever made. Co -produced by Allen and his son Bukka with longtime collaborator Lloyd Maines (Joe Ely Band, Dixie Chicks, Terri Hendrix) at Screen Door Studios in Buda, Texas, Bottom of the World doesn’t swagger so much as haunt. The minimalist arrangements — featuring just the Allen’s on keyboards, Maines on guitar and pedal steel, Richard Bowden on violin and mandolin, Brian Standeffer on cello, and Bukkaʼ wife Sally on harmony vocals — cast long, unsettling shadows that throw Allenʼs voice and lyrics in stark relief, like ghost stories told over a fire. The effect is every bit as chilling as Allenʼs 1975 debut, Juarez, but at the same time warmer and more intimate than anything Allen has ever recorded. While songs like “The Gift” and “Emergency Human Blood Courier” curdle the blood and make the hair on the back of the neck stand up, “Sidekick Anthem” and “Covenant” offer shelter and succor against the dark. “A promise lost next to a promised gained,” Allen sings on the later, closing the album with a disarmingly earnest grace note of reassurance and hope: “Going to find you / when you’re lost, Babe / Going to take your hand / and bring you home.”
Terry Allen Bottom of the World Let’s not mince words here: It’s been a god-awful long while since the last time Terry Allen released a collection of new songs. Maybe not record-breaking long — some of his peers in the Texas songwriter and Americana field have bested him by decades — but the fact is, we haven’t had a new Terry Allen album to savor since the waning days of the Clinton administration. That would be 1999’s Salivation; it’s the one with the painting of Jesus (“Big Boy”) on the cover and songs like the riotous “Southern Comfort,” in which Allen feasts on the delicious irony of self-righteous hypocrisy and gleefully baits anxious Rapture waiters by trumpeting a Second Coming rife with gotchas: “When Jesus saves the world / All time will stop with sin / And nothin’ will be mysterious / It’ll all just be The End.” The end result is an album that easily ranks amongst Allen’s very best, right up on the top shelf next to the aforementioned Juarez and 1979ʼs epic Lubbock (on everything) (regarded by many as not just a high-water mark in Allen’s career, but as a landmark album in Texas music history and a cornerstone of alt country.) As befits such an achievement, Bottom of the Worlds CD and digital release in early 2013 will be followed soon after by a limited-edition box set containing both vinyl and CD versions of the album and a suite of lithographs, one for each song on the record. For “Queenieʼs Song,” the eulogy for a murdered dog that he co-wrote with fellow Texas songwriting luminary Guy Clark, Allen shot a hole through the songʼs sheet music. Although Allen’s entire musical career had been paralleled by his equally if not even more decorated career as a visual artist (for which he has received, amongst other honors, both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a recent USA Artists Grant), this marks the first time he’s entwined the two into a single package since the original pressing of Juarez 38 years ago. (Fittingly, Bottom of the World also continues Allenʼs tradition of revisiting a different track from Juarez on album every album heʼs recorded since — this time choosing the enigmatic “Four Corners.”) Of course, thereʼs still the unanswered question of why the hell it took Allen so damn long to share Bottom of the World with the world. It for certain wasnʼt a case of creative fatigue or writers block. Rather, one can blame it on the manʼs demon work ethic and refusal to ever trap his muse in the corner of a single artistic medium. When inspiration seeds a song or even batch of songs in Allenʼs mind, itʼs never been a given that the end result will be an actual album. Any song he writes is just as likely to spawn (or be spawned by) a sprawling multi-dimensional project comprising prints, paintings, mind bending installations and hybrid theater/film/ music productions. In the last decade, heʼs completed two such massive and ambitious undertakings: Dugout, inspired by stories left behind by his late parents and his own childhood, and Ghost Ship Rodez, a harrowing meditation on the life, art, and madness of the French artist and writer Antonin Artaud. When pieces from both works were recently featured in an exhibit at NyeHaus Gallery in New York titled Ghosts: Works from “Dugout” / “Ghost Ship Rodez” / and Others, a New York Times review noted that Allen is the “one person whose art has been seen in high-brow museums around the country and is an inductee of the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame in Lubbock, Texas.” Allen also recently presented a song and narrative production called Covenant, a collaboration with his wife, film/ theater actress and writer Jo Harvey Allen, conceived as a survey of both their separate careers and their lifelong partnership in life, love, and art. (The Bottom of the World song “Covenant,” dedicated to Jo Harvey, came out of that intimate work, while the songs “Hold On to the House” and “Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven” were originally featured in Dugout and Ghost Ship, respectively.) Add to all of that Allenʼs busy schedule as an artist with commissioned sculptures and other public art works across the country, along with gallery showings, touring, and contributions to other musical projects (like his recording of “Old Friends” for the Grammy – nominated This Oneʼs for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark), and itʼs clear that he hasnʼt spent the last decade and change daydreaming about things to do and places to go like Bottom of the Worldʼs title track ironically implies.Quite the contrary, heʼs been firing on all creative cylinders at a breathless pace. In fact, at the time of this writing, with the ink still drying on his last print for his new album, Allen is already off and running on his next creation.What shape, form and medium that takes remains to be seen. Until then, Bottom of the World stands on its own as both further testament to the weight, depth and beauty of Allenʼs songcraft, and as unassailable proof of that age-old adage about good things coming to those who wait.