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Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band

Terry Allen’s 2019 retrospective exhibition, The Exact Moment It Happens in the West: Stories, Pictures, and Songs from the ’60s ‘til Now, at his longtime gallery L.A. Louver, surveyed the celebrated artist’s over fifty-year career bridging the disparate, and usually distant, worlds of conceptual art and country music. (Allen himself is suspicious of allsuch labels, famously asking, “People tell me it’s country music, and I ask, ‘Which country’”) The show concluded with a recent, and ongoing, body of work entitled MemWars—Terry likes puns—that deploys a three-channel video installation and drawings to examine nine indelible episodes from his life that have informed his influential songwriting. The real-life characters who inhabit the picaresque stories he tells (alongside his wife and collaborator of fifty-eight years, the actor
and writer Jo Harvey Allen) may have monstrous names—The Wolfman of Del Rio, The Gorilla Girl, Monkey Man, Headlight Woman, the Burn Couple—but, like all of us, they have endured mundane and all-too-human pain. MemWars concerns the mirages and ravages of memory, the fragmented ways we remember, and are remembered. It is Allen’s essential subject matter, refracted kaleidoscopically through a multiplicity of media.

Appropriately, then, his heartbreaking, hilarious new album Just Like Moby Dick, his first set of new songs since 2013’s Bottom of the World, takes its title from the archetypal monster of American literature and the American imaginary. (Coincidentally—or not—his label Paradise of Bachelors also takes its name from a Herman Melville story.) “Memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights,” Melville writes, and for most of the novel,
Moby Dick himself remains hidden, haunting Ahab as a crystalline monster of fathomless memory, a terrible fever dream from the depths. The whale remains a specter on Allen’s record too, appearing explicitly only in the briny final line of the last song “Sailin’ On Through,” and on the artist’s Side D vinyl etching and CD insert drawings, where he lurks menacingly beneath the roiling seas of Thomas Chambers, the 19th-century maritime painter whose floridly freaky
nautical scenes adorn the album jacket.

The connections to Melville’s 1851 masterpiece are metaphorical and allusive, as elusive as the White Whale. The masterly spiritual successor to widely acknowledged art-country classic Lubbock (on everything) (1979), Just Like Moby Dick casts its net wide for wild stories, depicting, among other monstrous things, Houdini in existential crisis (“Houdini
Didn’t Like the Spiritualists”), “The Death of the Last Stripper” in town, bloodthirsty pirates (in a pseudo-sequel to Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny”), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in the “American Childhood” suite), a vampire-infested circus (in “City of the Vampires”), mudslides and burning mobile homes (“Harmony Two”), and all manner of tragicomic disasters, abandonments, betrayals, bad memories, failures, and fare-thee-wells. It begins
graveside, with Houdini alone with his ectoplasmic doubts in “the silence of the night” (another “noiseless twilight”). It ends with death too, old friends fading into “ashes, dust, and songs.”

Fortunately, Just Like Moby Dick features friends in spades, including the full Panhandle Mystery Band in its current, formidable iteration. It is the most collaborative album in Allen’s catalog and arguably his most sonically rich and varied as well. Terry shares keyboard duties with his son Bukka Allen, who also plays accordion and piano. Pedal steel master
and de facto Panhandle bandleader Lloyd Maines contributes slide guitar and dobro, while Richard Bowden brings his characteristically kinetic and lyrical fiddle; both musicians have appeared on every Allen album since Lubbock (on everything). The brilliant Charlie Sexton, a veteran of Bob Dylan’s bands since 1999—he’s also played with David Bowie and Lucinda Williams and stars as Townes Van Zandt in Ethan Hawke’s 2018 Blaze Foley biopic—co-produced the record with Terry at Austin’s Arlyn Studios, plays guitar, and sings. Drummer Davis McLarty, a Mystery Band mainstay since Human Remains (1996) is joined by more recent rhythm section additions Glenn Fukunaga (bass) and Brian Standefer (cello). Terry’s other son Bale Allen sits in on djembe on “Abandonitis.”

The most clearly transformative new presence here, however, is Shannon McNally, who sings sublimely throughout, taking lead on “All These Blues Go Walkin’ By” and Jo Harvey’s jazzy “Harmony Two” and duetting with Sexton on “All That’s Left Is Fare-Thee-Well,” making this the only Allen album to cede lead vocals to other performers. Just Like Moby Dick is also unusual in featuring five songs co-written, in various permutations, with fellow travelers Joe Ely and Dave Alvin, as well as Sexton, McNally, and three other talented Allens (Jo Harvey, Bukka, and Bukka’s son Kru), largely emerging from 2018 songwriting sessions hosted by the Crowley Theater and Hotel St. George in Marfa, Texas. The satirical triptych “American Childhood” includes two previously unrecorded 2003 songs, “Civil Defense” and “Little
Puppet Thing,” related to Allen’s DUGOUT project, depicting a childhood in the shadow of Cold War atomic terror. They bookend “Bad Kiss,” in which a high school girl enlists, leaving home and an abbreviated romance for the war-torn Middle East. But history repeats itself in an endlessly stuttering cycle of brutality and death: “It’s just the war/Same fucking war/It’s always been/Never ends.”

“It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” reveals Ishmael in Moby-Dick. He reels off a litany of possible reasons—scientific, symbolic, cultural—why that might be, but it all boils down to absence, to blankness and emptiness. Pirate Jenny’s ship and flag may be “as black as her past,” but white is the color of death and surrender, of ghosts and the void—a symptom of “Abandonitis,” that American disease. “All good luck has death in it” reads one of Allen’s blood-red drawings in The Exact Moment It Happened in the West, emblazoned beside a broken wishbone. So domost good jokes, most good songs, most wisdom. Memory shoots her crystals as clear, white ice.