Album of the Week, October 27: Can You Fly by Freedy Johnston

CanYouFlyFred Fatzer was born in Kinsley, KS in 1961. Despite a passion for music, his interests were hampered by the limited options in his small town. In high school he ordered a guitar by mail order and had a friend drive him miles to another town to buy an Elvis Costello album. He went to the University of Kansas where the college town scene provided greater opportunities to explore his musical interests. He moved to New York City in the mid-80s and began performing as Freedy Johnston (taken from a childhood nickname and his mother’s maiden name). He released The Trouble Tree in 1990, a solid if spare debut that sparked some critical interest but had limited sales. Selling some family farmland in Kansas, he built on the stories of loners and lives gone quietly awry that populated his debut and recorded a follow-up. The result was nothing less than brilliant. Can You Fly is sadly little known masterpiece, often appearing on best of lists despite its low sales. (Notoriously prickly and terse music critic Robert Christgau dubbed it a “perfect album.”)

Title Can You Fly
Act Freedy Johnston
Label Bar None Release Date April 14, 1992
Producer Graham Maby and Knut Bohn
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know
  2. In the New Sunshine
  3. Tearing Down This Place
  4. Remember Me
  5. Wheels
  6. The Lucky One
  7. Can You Fly
  8. Responsible
  9. The Mortician’s Daughter
  10. Sincere
  11. Down In Love
  12. California Thing
  13. We Will Shine

The cover gives a good sense of what’s to come. A trifold picture of a stark black-and-white prairie with overcast skies and scrubby trees, it features a lone figure leaping in the center, pictured only from the shoulders down. Is it an escape? An ascension? A doomed attempt? The mixture of hope, desperation, and potential failure are classic Johnston themes. Blending a stripped-down power pop sensibility with a distinctive twang and a gritty roots rock band, he launches into an emotional set of tales of what might be.

Nothing demonstrates that better than Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know. Opening with the searing “I sold the dirt to feed the band” — a reference to how he financed the disc — it’s a passionate statement about hoping against hope. Johnston is putting everything he has into this effort. Will it pay off? He doesn’t know … but the need demands the effort. This is one of the strongest opening tracks out there and Johnston’s single masterpiece.

In the New Sunshine provides a slightly more hopeful outlook. With a ringing guitar background and a boisterous backing from the band, Johnston offers a potential new world where his songs might be heard. There’s no guarantee here, but the potential is intoxicating. Tearing Down This Place is much more sedate, with a quiet tempo that belies the emotional destruction of the lyrics. Something is ending, and that end must be matched with the elimination of everything that held it. Remember Me is nearly gospel in flavor, a spirited demand for support from a distant family. It’s one of Johnston’s best vocal turns on the album.

“There really is a town called Hopeless,” the singer intones as he begins Wheels. A series of isolated lines hinting at escape and the need for new beginnings, it fits the semi-autobiographical tone of several tracks. It also stands as a brilliant depiction of the despair of life in a dying town, especially for someone with talent and dreams that it can’t contain. The Lucky One picks up the travel theme, telling the story of a gambler whose hopes are never matched by his miserable luck. The ache of the delivery makes the character sympathetic without descending into bathos, a nice trick that Johnston pulls off in many fine songs.

The centerpiece of the album is the haunting title track. With an eerie, supernatural feel, it works perfectly with the cover images to summon hope, fear, need, and despair. You can hear the Kansas wind behind Johnston’s quiet keening. Things take a more urban turn in Responsible, the tale of a man who fled his family for New York, only to have his daughter follow his lead years later. It’s a wonderfully constructed tale of consequences with just enough guarded optimism to serve as one of the album’s most promise-filled tracks. We then return to small town life with the perfect story told in The Mortician’s Daughter. A poignant memory of a first love, it’s flawless in lyric, music, and delivery.

Sincere is another story of trying to succeed. Johnston demands attention from a stranger, telling him of the travails he faces in a strange town. It’s a frank, direct narrative of the unkindness of strangers and a particularly dark track even in this collection. Johnston is joined by the enchanting Syd Straw for the duet Down In Love, another more direct tale of loss. Their voice merge perfectly and the sorrow resonates beautifully in every line. The next emotion is anger, as Johnston rages against an unspecified lie that wrought havoc in his life. California Thing is a short, potent burst of energy as the album winds down.

The closer is the fragile, wistful We Will Shine. A song of hope in an uncaring world, it rings with small tragedies and the support that comes only from the most intimate relationships. In Johnston’s world of loss, almost-was, and should-have-beens, it’s a lovely reminder of where success and meaning may be found.

FURTHER LISTENING: Johnston’s releases since Can You Fly are remarkably consistent. None quite live up to the pinnacle of this disc, but all offer a solid set of well-crafted songs. His themes are also pretty consistent, but the stories are all different enough and set ins such lovely music that there’s never a sense of repetition. His strongest sets are This Perfect World, his third and most commercially successful album; Never Home, which features some of his most joyous songs; and Right Between the Promises.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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