Black Diamond, Stan Ridgway's fourth solo album, is the work of a mature artist willing to take surprising risks. I cannot recall an album on which Ridgway has appeared--and this would include the long ago Wall of Voodoo period--on which he reveals so much of himself. Apparently, he has abandoned the personal mythologizing of Partyball (1991), his previous solo effort, for a more direct, confessional, approach. Not that Ridgway's satiric eye is not as keenly focused as ever ("Big Dumb Town"), or that his requisite gallery of emotional cripples is not also on display (the superb "Knife and Fork," certainly to be the album's first single). His compassion for the disenfranchised is unruly as always, as in "Down the Coast Highway," a masterpiece, an example of what I have called elsewhere Ridgway's "cross purpose" songwriting style. By "cross purpose" writing style, I mean that his songs pull the listener in contradictory emotional directions, the music invoking one response, the lyrics another. One of our best singer/songwriters, he possesses a poet's eye for nuance and detail, and also sensitive and vivid emotional states. Like other American originals, Ridgway likes to make the ordinary extraordinary. His subjects range from losses ("Gone the Distance," a meditation on the late Kurt Cobain, and "Luther Played Guitar," an homage to the late guitarist Luther Perkins, of the Tennessee Two, Johnny Cash's original backing band), to betrayal ("Pink Parakeet"), to the yearning for redemption ("Underneath the Big Green Tree"). As a (rare) cover, Ridgway also includes Bob Dylan's "As I Went Out One Morning"--a modern version of Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"--from John Wesley Harding (1967), the album to which Ridgway's Mosquitos (1989) bears a noticeable similarity. Himself a belated romantic, the Keatsian echo here--as elsewhere in his work--is no surprise.
What I find remarkable about Black Diamond is its uncanniness, the way Ridgway shapes his musical forms to sound both familiar and unfamiliar, recognizable, yet alien. At times the emotional impact of his production approaches giddiness. "Luther Played Guitar" is reminiscent of early Johnny Cash, while "Stranded" sounds like it could be from the same period as Love's masterful Forever Changes (1967). "Wild Bill Donovan" is suggestive of Phil Ochs, while "Crystal Palace" invokes (and does not invoke) Harry Nilsson. If there is the musical equivalent of the concept "retrofitting," then this album defines it. Moreover, Ridgway still retains his ear for the cadences and sounds of ordinary language; he continues to capture in his vocals the quality of the American vernacular.
Always a fiercely independent artist, Black Diamond is Ridgway's first album for Birdcage Records (P.O. Box 784, Sierra Madre, CA 91024). The result is a very strong record of vast emotional range and superb songwriting. Incidentally, the oxymoronic title of the album is not an allusion to the song (of the same name) by Kiss. Black Diamond, I believe, alludes to Ridgway's mining of heretofore untapped emotional depths and a period of introspection; the ore is a rare find indeed. The result is a collection of gems. I hope Ridgway keeps searching the mine.
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