John Evans, Polyester
“A Tale of Two Elvises” — that’s what keeps popping into my head, weirdly, as I listen to John Evans’ new album Polyester. And it does make sense, kind of, as the album rolls on. I’ll explain how in a minute, but at the root, it’s because, see, Polyester isn’t much like what I’ve heard from Evans in the past (which, I’ll grant, has been fairly limited).
There’s not a lot of true-blue “country” music here, is what it is, in part. Some of it’s rootsy, some of it’s bluesy, and some of it definitely sounds twangy and Western, but it’s nowhere near even the “outlaw country” tag I’ve seen Evans get over the years. And yeah, okay, he’s never really fit that particular label, either, but still, it’s obvious from the very start that this is something truly different.
Obvious right from the first bellbottom-wearing blast of title track “Polyester,” which is like Matthew Sweet more than anything else, with sneaky, smirking lyrics, a ’70s retro feel, an addictive power-pop melody and rhythm, and those crunchy, fuzzed-out guitars right up next to your head. If it weren’t for Evans singing lines like “Send me in back / past the emo rack / to the vintage polyester,” you’d think this song actually was written in the ’70s.
The power-pop vein continues on into “Pretty,” a warm, rootsy pop-rock tune that’s deceptively dark and tragic despite its title and seeming sweetness. It brings to mind Elvis Costello (ding! Elvis #1, right there) and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, both of whom have a talent for crafting great, hooky pop songs about crushingly sad situations; that’s exactly what this is, and it works awesomely well.
“Dust Bowl” shakes things up, shifting into a bluesy, down-low growler with a stomping rhythm, droning guitars, and weird electronic touches creeping around the background beneath Evans’ bottom-of-a-well vocals. It makes me think of Austin bluesman Joe Richardson vocals-wise, while the music brings to mind a barely-restrained John Spencer, full of leashed fury and dark menace and grit.
Elvis #2 (aka the “Elvis,” to most) comes in with “Sweet Dreams,” all fragile and beautiful drifting guitars, shaker, and Presley-like phrasing. It’s on the Western end of things, a gently roots-tinged pop song lullaby under which lurks a layer of bitter pain and sadness. “Grandma’s Chair” comes closer to country territory, quieter and more folky and thoughtful, with Evans seeming to be singing about making a new start after his life’s fallen apart.
“Instant Society” is nicely jangly roots-folk track, one that seriously reminds me of Buxton but with Elvis Costello-ish lyrics and structure, and then there’s “Trouble Is,” which is what Elvis Presley would have sounded like had he survived, done the inevitable back-to-his-roots thing, and delved down into the blues he always drew from.
It’s grim and slow-moving, an alligator slinking along a muddy track, as Evans lists out all the little things that cause problems in your life, from in-laws to getting punched in the face to losing your job. The guitars are understated and backwoodsy, the bass is rubbery and muddy, and it just rolls on and on, relentless as life itself.
What follows is “Until You,” a delicate, yearning, amazed song that sounds simultaneously like an acoustic cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues,” all with Elvis on vocals. It’s self-effacing and awed, the voice of a man who truly can’t comprehend what he’s done to deserve the love he’s received.
The album closes out with a nice one-two punch, first with “Love Note,” a jaunty, retro-sounding pop tune that’s very nearly Beatlesque and is a lot of fun, and then with the pained-yet-hopeful “Good Life,” where Evans sounds as if he’s sitting alone late at night, singing to someone who’s left his life.
Now, for the truly sad part: if you look at the liner notes, you’ll see that Evans dedicated Polyester to Abigail Evans. Abbie Evans is his daughter, who passed away tragically in 2013 at the young age of 18 from a horrific illness, and who traveled with her dad out on the road, selling merch at his shows and enjoying her too-brief life as much as she possibly could.
There’s a documentary film made about her, Butterfly Girl, that you really ought to see. What I did was listen to Polyester first, and then watch the movie, which meant that the next time I listened to these songs, I couldn’t help but hear them as being played by Evans for his little girl. Hearing them anew after learning the story gives a layer of poignant sadness to damn near everything here, even the pretty, happy songs.
From what I’ve heard and read, Evans almost didn’t finish this album, too broken with grief and sorrow, but in the end decided that his daughter would’ve wanted him to. Sitting here, with this beautiful, incredible album borne out of pain and love and loss, I’m thinking it’s a very, very good thing he did.