Can You Fly
Can You Fly starts with the immortal opening line “Well I sold the dirt to feed the band”, referring to Johnston’s decision to sell a generations-old family farm to fund his musical career. Compared to his debut, Can You Fly is much more minimalist and acoustically focused. That’s not to say it’s heading into James Taylor territory; Johnston’s voice is agreeably ragged, there’s still plenty of energy and angst present. These songs are exceptional, melodic and told in Johnston’s own unique voice. Johnston is supported by a terrific, understated band; fellow fringe-pop musicians Marshall Crenshaw, Chris Stamey and Kevin Salem guest on guitar, while Joe Jackson alumni Graham Maby produces half the tracks and adds some excellent bass lines.
As much as the abrasive tracks like ‘Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know’ and ‘California Thing’ are critical for the balance of the album, it’s the disarmingly straightforward material that’s the most appealing. ‘Down In Love’, a duet with Syd Straw, is beautiful in its simplicity; something that could potentially be sappy and overwrought (“Down so far you can’t be broken/No more dreams for me”) is so understated and pure that it’s impossible to dislike. Likewise, ‘The Mortician’s Daughter’ is a simple tale of nostalgic love, but the unromantic choice of love interest (“we drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids”) gives it an engaging, off-kilter quality that’s hard to pin down. ‘The Lucky One’ is similarly ambiguous, the tale of an eternally optimistic, but ill-fated, gambler.
As good as Johnston is at playing other characters, plenty of these songs seem underpinned by his own experiences, and the more autobiographical nature of Can You Fly is perhaps what makes it his definitive statement.