In the 15 years since Green Day lambasted the Bush administration with “American Idiot,” rock music’s cultural cache has dwindled to its lowest point. Decades from now, documentary footage about Trump-era racial animus and immigration policy will likely by soundtracked by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels, not the electric-guitar protest songs of yore.
That, though, isn’t stopping veteran rocker Alejandro Escovedo from trying his best to sound of the moment. The singer-songwriter’s latest album, The Crossing, follows two young immigrants, the Mexican Diego and the Italian Salvo, who arrive in Texas and grapple with racism and the modern American immigrant experience, all while bonding over classic 1970s garage rock. For Escovedo, a native Texan and son of Mexican immigrants who got his start playing in punk bands like the Nuns and Rank and File as far back as the mid ’70s, this isn’t just a political story, but also a personal one. That’s why the album manages to make an emotional impact, even as its zeitgeist-y message is occasionally undercut by stale musical references and languid bloat.
The Crossing may be the most musically adventurous and eclectic entry in Escovedo’s extensive catalog. Credit goes to his unconventional choice of backing band: spacey genre-bending Italian instrumental group Don Antonio, whose leader, Antonio Gramentiere, also co-wrote these songs. If the band sounds thin compared to muscular, uptempo style that Escovedo has favored on his recent releases, they also introduce a new, welcome array of textures to his sonic vocabulary. Capable of grand cinematic sweep (“Footsteps in the Shadows”), wistful atmosphere (“Texas is My Mother”), soulful swing (“How Many Times”), slinky jazz cool (“Amor Puro”), and lush intimacy (“Cherry Blossom Rain”), often all in the same song (the title track), Don Antonio displays an expansive palette, evoking ever-shifting emotional tones that Escovedo’s dried husk of a voice is no longer able to reflect on its own.
What they’re not especially adept at is playing straight rock n’ roll. The album starts to drag after an hour’s worth of leisurely tempos and few reliable shots of adrenaline, which is curious considering how central punk and garage influences are not just to Escovedo and Gramentiere’s songs here, but to the album’s story and themes. Songs like “Outlaw for You” and “Sonica USA,” the latter of which vociferously summarizes the forgotten history of Hispanics in punk, go out of their way to establish these musical touchstones as integral aspects of Diego and Salvo’s identities. Escovedo not only frequently name-checks influences like the MC5 and Johnny Thunders, he invites them to share the mic: The MC5’s Wayne Kramer, the Stooges’s James Williamson, the Only Ones’s Peter Perrett and John Perry, and Escovedo’s fellow Texan cowpunk pioneer Joe Ely all make guest appearances. But Don Antonio simply can’t supply the power or edge needed to invoke that lineage, and the rockers, like “Outlaw for You” and “Fire and Fury,” are mostly limp.
The references to ’70s rock also help to muddle The Crossing’s timeline. Perhaps that was intentional: While certain lyrics place the narrative sometime in the ’80s, Diego claims on the title track: “I lost my innocence to the ICE.” Whether the album is supposed to be taken as a contemporary tale or something closer to a retelling of Escovedo’s personal history matters because, frankly, times have changed. This is why the album’s most universal songs have the most resonance. “Footsteps in the Shadows” is a chilling yet rousing account of a border crossing, with the refugees’ dread and urgency echoing in the low piano notes and swelling strings. Two songs later, the roiling “Teenage Luggage” perfectly establishes The Crossing’s stakes: the unavoidable drama of life as a combustible, strong-willed young rocker (“You think you know me?/You’ll never know me/You’re a bigot with a bad guitar”) in an equally combustible cultural environment (“America’s beautiful/America’s ill/America’s a bloodstain in a honky-tonk kill”). The sheer abandon in Escovedo’s voice betrays that this is really his story, but the kind of youthful passion and conviction he portrays transcends generations.
The album’s apex is “Rio Navidad,” a spoken-word track in which Diego encounters a bigoted ex-Texas ranger at his cousin’s wedding. The band settles into a lazy jazz riff as the Texas ranger speaks, then shifts to a completely disparate tone and style when Diego responds, with beautiful, cathartic chords and glimmering guitars. And all while Escovedo, as Diego, delivers some backbreaking invective toward his grinning, mustachioed tormenter: “It’s a fucking name you’re too stupid too pronounce…In a way it’s just as American as yours.” It’s passages like this that distinguish The Crossing, despite its flaws, as an important chapter in 2018’s cultural conversation.