Few people have walked a harder road than Roky Erickson and survived. Founder of the groundbreaking 1960s psychedelic band 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson fell into a spiral of drug and legal problems that culminated when he was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. Even after his release, Erickson’s mental state was fragile, and his most productive post-Elevators period was full of songs about demons and monsters; he also generated a notarized affidavit certifying that he was a Martian. Nearly a quarter-century of hermitage followed. But in recent years, Erickson has rebounded, playing music, touring, and at last recording his first new album in 15 years, True Love Cast Out All Evil.
It’s a triumph merely that this album exists, but True Love’s musical richness goes beyond what could reasonably have been expected from even a resurgent Roky. A big part of that is due to producer Will Sheff, who backs Erickson along with his band, Okkervil River. Sheff’s role was necessarily more than just turning some knobs; he’s helping curate Erickson’s legacy. Given a huge backlog of unrecorded songs, many going back 40 years, Sheff wisely focused on Erickson’s most spiritual and personal material, like the beatific title track and the sad lament of “Goodbye Sweet Dreams.” Gently philosophical and wistful, True Love reveals Erickson as a songwriter of resonant emotional depth—something all too easily overshadowed by his bizarre biography, not to mention his penchant for writing about fanged devils and acid trips. Erickson’s dynamic, soulful voice, always his greatest musical asset, has lost little of its power. Equally at home on the wistfully romantic “Birds’d Crash” and the hard-rocking firestorm of the angry, raucous “John Lawman,” that voice is the passionate heart of True Love, and rightly so. Not unlike Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, this is an album by a grizzled veteran of rock’s rougher roads who proves in his late career that he still has great work in him. Perhaps even better, Erickson sounds remarkably confident and optimistic; for all the tumult of his life, he’s happy to be living it.