Sometimes an album can’t just rest on its music. Context is everything, and without a little knowledge of Roky Erickson’s backstory, the impact of True Love Cast Out All Evil as an album is considerably diminished.
Having been part of one of the most influential psychedelic bands of all time (The 13th Floor Elevators), Erickson fell victim to mental health issues. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he’s spent the last three or four decades in and out of mental institutions and battling multiple demons. His health finally returned to something approaching normality in 2001 and this album sees his first recorded output in more than a decade.
Will Sheff of Okkervil River was asked by Erickson to produce the album; the end result of which was that Sheff not only provided production for Erickson, but his band as well. This is not a collaboration exactly, nor is it a comeback album. It is however a startling look at an artist’s career. Without this context, True Love Cast Out All Evil is a good record; with a little knowledge of Erickson’s hardship, it is impossible not to accept it as a great accomplishment.
The album is bookended with Devotional Number One and God Is Everywhere, rudimentary recordings both, all tape hiss and booming microphone distortion. Both are heartfelt spirituals awash with ambient noise such as birdsong, but they are hopeful, slightly askew tales of Christianity and redemption. It is almost certainly no coincidence that when Erickson croons the line “Jesus is not an hallucinogenic mushroom” on Devotional Number One that Sheff starts to bring in a slowly building wall of white noise creating an air of confusion and catharsis.
Ain’t Blues Too Sad ushers us into the album proper, a quick country blues number that’s gone as soon as it arrives. It does however let us hear Erickson’s voice properly for the first time. Gone is the familiar razor-edged scream that graced the 13th Floor Elevators work; in its place is a warm but damaged country-tinged croon. Initially it’s a little jarring, but eventually it is evident that the tone fits these songs perfectly.
Be And Bring Me Home is worth the price of admission alone. A history of Erickson’s life set to a beautiful funereal country backing, it is heartbreaking from the first bar to the last. Unerring in its honesty, it is the sound of a man baring his soul and giving thanks to those who helped him on his journey. “Special and magical music, these are feelings from one to another,” Erickson sings, and sums up the album better in one sentence than any number of reviews could in thousands of words.
Please Judge is a rumination on his three year incarceration at the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. A slow blues ballad, it features some clever production touches from Sheff as he brings chaotic noise to the surface when appropriate, and allows some simplistic strings just enough room to inject a dose of sorrow.
John Lawman is the closest we get to the garage rock of old, with Erickson’s rasping voice rutting up against an incessant Stooges riff and a wall of cacophonous feedback. Invigorating it may well be, but it’s the autobiographical moments and the songs of hope such as the gospel inflected title track that are the most beguiling.
True Love Cast Out All Evil charts the legacy of one of music’s real survivors. It is full of sadness and hope, but ultimately it is a celebration of human spirit and the unique talent of Roky Erickson. This indeed is special and magical music.