Faced with the prospect of recording his final album after a nearly fatal bout with hepatitis, acclaimed singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo released one of his finest records with 2006’s The Boxing Mirror. Now with an improved bill of health, there was a definite risk that Escovedo’s follow-up, Real Animal, might be something of a letdown. But Escovedo is simply too good for that to happen, and though Real Animal was not written and recorded under its predecessor’s dire circumstances, it contains some of his sharpest and most personal songwriting to date.
There’s a strong autobiographical bent to Real Animal, as Escovedo makes overt references to the different phases of his storied career. He relives his time with the San Francisco punk band the Nuns on “Nuns Song,” and his time spent in New York City’s bohemian arts community on “Chelsea Hotel ‘78.” He even offers a scathing, ironic sendup of that latter scene on “Sensitive Boys,” which uses a Pips-like backing chorus to brilliantly snarky effect. His emergence as one of the premier artists of the early alt-country movement is given most weight, though, captured on standout cuts like “Golden Bear” and “Swallows of San Juan.” He also confronts his illness on the raucous, blues-inflected “People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long),” which a lesser writer would have reduced to time-is-short clichés but which Escovedo turns into something of a populist anthem.
While this autobiographical structure results in some of Escovedo’s strongest writing, it does work against Real Animal from a production standpoint. It’s a refreshing break from recent form to hear Escovedo really cut loose on the album’s more aggressive rock numbers, to which producer Tony Visconti gives an appropriately gritty finish, but the abrupt stylistic changes between the retro pop of “Sensitive Boys” to the straightforward Americana of opener and lead single “Always a Friend” to the punk sneer of “Smoke” can make for a jarring, disjointed listen. The production choices are well-matched to the individual songs on both structural and thematic levels—Real Animal works as a testament to the diversity of Escovedo’s career and the breadth of his talents—but those individual choices don’t necessarily make for a cohesive album. That it plays more like a greatest-hits anthology, though, is a relatively minor complaint when applied to an album as well-written as this.