Terry Allen creates masterpieces. Always has.
So much of Allen’s song catalog captures the essence of the American Southwest. Whether his sights have been on Lubbock, Juarez, Southern California, or where ever, he’s been able to paint the area with accurate precision. It’s no surprise this time around, it’s the bottom of the world–which seems to be, you guessed it, the Southwest–a place that Allen knows like the back of his hand.
But it doesn’t seem like that’s the only place in mind on Bottom of the World.
Just over a year ago, in an interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard about his last record The Grifter’s Hymnal, he said something that not only applied that record, but something you can characterize and say more about a record than any album review could–this one included. He said, “When you get older, you think more about your mortality. (And yes, you could say that rings true for a plethora of songwriters and albums, but that doesn’t mean they’re done this well).”
Allen’s Bottom of the World has plenty of existentialism and eschatology thoughts throughout its’ text. It’s obviously not a new subject for Allen though. It just seems to be one of his most concentrated efforts on the matter.
Bottom of the World is certainly Allen at his most tranquil and calm. For its entirety (11 songs, roughly 42 minutes worth), it’s probably Allen’s most elegant and beautiful song arrangements to date. The songs are spacious and have plenty of elbow room for each individual sound instilled. Allen’s often collaborators and Lubbock natives Richard Bowden and Lloyd Maines, as well as Allen’s son and daughter-in-law Bukka and Sally Allen, and cellist Brian Standefer all have their fair share of time helping Allen establish Bottom of the World‘s airy delicate, yet stable and robust presence.
It’s no surprise that Allen’s lyrical output continues to be sharp as ever.
“Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven” have Allen’s most thought-provoking questions on Bottom of the World. Only a handful of songwriters would ask if they dream of Hell in Heaven. Most would probably find the other way around a much safer, reassuring thought (Do they dream of Heaven in Hell?). “Do they dream of Hell in Heaven? Do they regret how hard they tried and wish now they’d been more sinful, then repented just a minute before the died?” is a much more interesting thought to consider though.
You won’t find a more haunting Allen tune than “Emergency Human Blood Courier.” Sally Allen’s background vocals chillingly accent Allen’s harrowing tale of Mexico’s (and the US) hemorrhaging drug war artery. It’s the one song on the record that starts off with a spoken word introduction. Allen finishes the song with the truest of statements: Emergency Human Blood Courier. Mexico, it’s the story of the world.
It certainly would be a shame if it doesn’t make its way onto FX’s The Bridge at some point to join fellow West Texas/New Mexico songwriter Ryan Bingham’s “Until I’m with You,” the theme song for the new series about the El Paso-Juarez border.
He uses one of his greatest songwriting tricks on the song by repeating “Emergency human blood courier” eight times (and nine if you just go with “Emergency human blood”). It’s the driving force and tone.
Bottom of the World starts off with Allen revisiting Juarez, Allen’s 1975 debut record, with “Four Corners.” Even when the song is nearly 40 years old (at the very least), it doesn’t feel out of place amongst the new Allen-penned songs. If anything, it’s a friendly reminder that Allen’s always been a hell of a storyteller.
We caught up with Terry Allen last week to discuss Bottom of the World.
New Slang: This is your first record released in 14 years. As far as studio records go.
Terry Allen: Sugar Hill released a compilation several years ago. And I’ve also self-released a few theatre piece called Ghost Ship Rodez during that time. But yeah, this is the first studio album of songs.
NS: Yeah. Did you think you were always going to make another record–because 14 years is a good amount of time.
TA: Well, it’s not like I’ve been in a coma [laughs]. I’ve written about four theatre pieces, performed, and played around. I did an awful lot of music for these theatre pieces. Some of the songs being on Bottom of the World. But I don’t really think in terms of that I have to do something in a given time period. I had these songs together and started thinking about how I wanted to do something that was different from what I’d done before. These songs opened up a lot of possibilities. So that’s where it came from. But I’ve never thought that I’ve had to do another album because it’s been too long because I don’t have a clue what that means. It’s never really ever been that way. I’ve never really had that attitude of you need to do a record, or you need to do an exhibition, or you need to do a play, or whatever you’re doing in a given time frame. I think you get an idea and you start working on it and it takes as long as it takes. So 14 years for me is deceptive. A lot of people are jumping on that, but it really don’t mean shit to me.
NS: [Laughs]. A lot of your songs, there’s space in them. They’re not overfilled with instruments or anything. This record Bottom of the World though, feels like it even has more open arrangements and is probably you’re least filled songs in your discography.
TA: Yeah. That was very much on purpose. Kind of from the beginning, I wanted to do something that was –because the nature of the lyrics and what the songs are about–I wanted to do something that was real, real spacious and open. That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t want to use any percussion, drums, or a bass even. There’s a couple of them, “Bottom of the World” and “Hold on to the House,” we had a jack that was in a wood block that I stomped on. It was kind of a percussion that you can hear a bit. But all the rest of it, pretty much the percussion is what you can hear on my keyboard–my hands or fingers hitting that keys. It was really about having a lot of space. Almost like filmic space with big open areas where the words kind of work in. Lloyd [Maines] and my son Bukka [Allen] were instrumental in helping me kind of think about and scope out these songs.
NS: When writing a song–like just for example, something on this record. How do you know when to stop? How do you know it’s finished? What does the song tell you?
TA: I tell you, if I could copyright that, man, I’d be a billionaire [laughs]. I think the song always tells you. I think when you’re working on a song, it’s got to be about the song. It’s not about you or about finishing it or about it being too long or too short. It’s about what it is. You try and make your decisions about what this song should do, how should it begin, how should it extend, based on what that song is. For me, that’s the key to any song. You have to do everything you can when recording a song to make it be as true to itself and about itself that you can. Think that way.
NS: Bottom of the World starts off with “Four Corners,” which is of course off your first record Juarez. You’ve always kind of gone back and rerecorded a song from Juarez for just about every studio record you’ve done since then. What is it that draws you back to those songs on Juarez?
TA: Well that first record was meaningful to me in so many ways. But it’s really kind of simpler than that. I had no money when I recorded that and I heard all kinds of instrumentation. I was very frustrated at the time even though I was very happy with the record. But I was frustrated with not being able to have experimented and try some different things with those songs. And I’ve had the opportunity since then to do that. Juarez has been a lot of things for me. It’s been a theatre piece. It’s gone through a number of mutations and changes and whatever else over the years as the images have. I don’t know how many exhibitions I’ve done that were based on Juarez. And for theatre and I’ve done a couple of film scripts for it. So it’s almost like a haunting to me. It continues to come back in some way or another. I’ve never resisted that because it’s always been such a mysterious event in my life. The way those songs came and how they came– [it was] just out of the air to me. I’v always respected where all of that came from even though I didn’t really know where it was [laughs]. Anyway, I just decided that I wanted to hear some of the recorded other ways. That’s what I’ve done. On “Four Corners,” there was a friend of mine, an artist named H.C. Westermann, who’s been dead for quite a while now. He was an old friend of mine. He loved the Juarez album. He had died in the early ’80s, but several years ago, they did a huge retrospective that traveled around the country of his work. Some of the pieces he had given me or traded me, I had put in the show. They wanted the band to come play the opening of the museum so we went and the whole band went and we did a real stripped down acoustic version of the entire album of Juarez. When we were doing it, Lloyd played a lap steel under “Four Corners.” I had always heard a kind of steel something in there. I liked it so much that I really wanted to record it the next time I had recorded a record. So that was the first song that we recorded. It was really all based on that time in Chicago at the museum when we played that live. In fact, all the songs on Bottom of the World were cut in sequence. We pretty laid down exactly the way the record end up being as far as the sequence of the songs. That was very important to me too on this record. It always is, how a song lays on a record. I think of a record as one thing. These different songs, the images and ideas in them, kind of flow through and show up in another way in another song. In that way, it’s kind of filmic. It’s also like a book with chapters. Films with scenes and books with chapters.
NS: I was actually going to bring that up. The importance of viewing your records as one piece. I read an interview with you about the record in which you mentioned that five or six songs were recorded during this time, but ultimately didn’t make the album. What do you think ends up happening to those? Do you already kind of have an idea on what you’re going to do with them?
TA: Well there’s a couple of them that I want to go back to. I’ve been writing some new songs. I’ll probably go back to them when I go back into the studio and listen to them and maybe–but to tell you what’s going to happen to them, I don’t know. If it seems to make sense with what I’m doing at the time, I’ll use them.
NS: Like you were saying earlier, you view your records more so as one piece versus 10 individual songs or whatever.
TA: Yeah. And I think that really started with Juarez too because it is a story. It’s kind of a single unit told in a lot of ways. It’s also the same story that’s told from a lot of different points of view. It’s all the same incident, the same thing, and told from different perspective from each of those characters. That’s what I was thinking about when I was writing those songs. Juarez was one thing and Lubbock (On Everything) I also felt had a sequence that was extremely important to being what it is. I felt that kind of need every time I’ve ever made a record. You’re making a thing that has all these parts. The parts have to be these songs or these sounds or stories.
NS: One thing I think is really interesting in your songwriting–and I don’t know if anyone’s ever really mentioned this or not–but the way you’re able to use curse words in your songs without them feeling forced or out of place. They come within the song very natural. Now I’m probably reaching with this part, but do you think that maybe this is because of growing up and living here in Lubbock? Like–
TA: Like did I learn all those words in Lubbock [laughs]?
NS: No [laughs]. More so like do you think it was kind of in a way a form of rebelling against the conservative nature of Lubbock? Not even as something you did intentionally. You get what I’m saying?
TA: Yeah. Maybe that’s reading too much into it. I left Lubbock with a vengeance. That’s for sure. But I don’t think it was any more of a vengeance than any kid when they use their hometown and their circumstances as an excuse to get out of there and get out into the world. I really came to terms with Lubbock when I came back to record Lubbock (On Everything). I totally came to terms with how I felt about it and kind of put it away after that. I don’t know. I think language is there to use. You use whatever is necessary. Those kind of words are available as any religious words or descriptive words. It’s also the way people talk. It’s not like any of them are words that you have to explain to something what they mean. They’ve heard them a billion times. It’s not a contrivance other than when you look for choices when you make something and how you make something as poignant as it can be. Or make it as true as you can make it. And if you need the word fuck, you use the word fuck. If you need intercourse, you use intercourse. But it has to do with what the song is. Again, it goes back to that. I think those choices are very important when writing a song because, for me, it’s alway editing. Editing. Editing. Editing. And trying to distill something down to the essence to what the thing really is. I wrote a song called “Bloodlines” years ago. That was an important song for me because it was so few words. It somehow incapsulated so much more than just the sparsity of the words. That’s kind of been a rule of thumb for me to try when writing songs. You try to distill it down to those words that are most crucial to tell the story. And sometimes fuck makes it and sometimes it doesn’t [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. That was actually something else I was going to ask you about. Your ability to reveal so much character development with so few words. So many songwriters try and cram as many words as possible into a song to tell you what’s going on rather than letting you the listener pick up on it by really listening.
TA: Yeah. Again I think it depends on what the songs about. In a way, Juarez is one song. It’s in a way one big, long epic story, but very simple as far as the story. I think it’s very dense with words and very dense with images. Very different from Bottom of the World even though people seem to be comparing the two, but I think that has more to do with sparseness. But Juarez was sparse because really my financial situation more than because of any great aesthetic decisions. But it was a necessity to me at the time to get those songs out. Just kind of depends on the circumstances.
NS: Now there’s a few songs on this record that I feel are very set in modern times. Like “The Gift” and “Emergency Human Blood Courier” feel as though they were inspired by events that happened within the last five or 10 years. The song “The Gift,” was that inspired by someone in particular?
TA: Yeah. It came from an incident that I read in the paper. This was all when the Bernard Madoff stuff was happening. His son, after he went to prison. His son went through a terrible ordeal of being accused as being part of it. Nobody quite knew but evidently he couldn’t deal with what was going on inside of himself and he committed suicide. The whole thing to me was almost like a Greek tragedy. It was all about the father and son and possession and losing it. It had all those kind of epic things. It was also amazingly devoid of women. There was very little spoken about his wife and the guy had his own son that he put into the nursery before he killed himself. So it was very much dominoes. I started just working on that song and it kind of turned into a little news reel. But I think it’s really about that thing we give our children. It also was that epic nature of the tragedy.
NS: I thought it may have been about that. I really like how quickly it’s revealed that he killed himself in the song. It’s very quick and to the point and happens in just a matter of words. Now “Emergency Human Blood Courier,” it has one of my favorite verses on the record. The one about blood sweat and tears (“Emergency Human Blood Courier is that Jesus behind the wheel wearing a Blood, Sweat, & Tears t-shirt or is that blood, sweat, and tears there for real?”).
TA: Jesus behind the wheel [laughs].
NS: Mhmm. I think it’s a very clever line. Where exactly did that song originate from?
TA: I saw that–I was in Albuquerque and on the freeway there, Interstate 25 that runs through it and goes down south to El Paso and Juarez–and there was a little car that beat up and had a big sign on the side of it that said “Emergency Human Blood Courier.” And I was kind of dumbfounded at seeing a sign like that on the side of car. I had never seen anything like it. I started saying those words in a rhythm over and over. Emergency Human Blood Courier. I couldn’t get it out of my head. When I got home, I sat down and started working on some lyrics for it. We went in on a session and actually cut just kind of a rough cut. [It had] a real Mexican kind of cajunto feel–that first version of it. And it was just horrible. I didn’t like the feel of it or any of it. Didn’t like the words so I came back and before the next session kind of rewrote it. I think the introduction really opened it up for me because it set a tone that in a way set it apart from reality and at the same time, was almost a contradiction, a paradox that was landed smack in reality. I used that rhythm that I first heard in the song. That over and over and over and over. That seemed to almost parallel what’s going on down there and what’s been going on. Then when Sally [Allen] came in, it was really kind of an afterthought bringing her in. She came in on “The Gift” and mainly to sing on “Angels of the Wind.” But we said why don’t you try and do something on “Emergency Human Blood Courier?” And she, she to me, made the song what it is. Her voice just had this eeriness to it and took it to a place that that it needed to be.