May 29, 2002 at 12:00 am
Thirteen Years
Alejandro Escovedo
Texas Music Group

By The Hand Of The Father
Alejandro Escovedo
Texas Music Group

In 1991, Austin’s Alejandro Escovedo met his crucible in the form of his estranged wife’s suicide. The resulting shock and grief somehow yielded a pair of artistic masterpieces that earned him No Depression’s “Artist of the Decade” award. Now, anyone who’s ever journeyed from tragedy to enlightenment knows that the tiny epiphanies along the way are what keep the burden from growing too great to bear. Escovedo was no exception, gradually finding his artistic voice as the lessons accumulated.

His ’92 solo debut Gravity begins with the shocking j’accuse: “Did you get your invitation?/There’s gonna be a public hanging/I thought I heard you praying/It’s just the closing of the door.” At the close of 1993’s Thirteen Years he looks back, in a mixture of incredulous relief and firm resolve, “I got some questions that need answering/The unexpected is my best friend/So won’t you tell me, is this really the end?” Clearly, a transformation has taken place and song titles tell the story: “Five Hearts Breaking,” “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Pyramid of Tears” (all from Gravity); “Baby’s Got New Plans,” “Way It Goes,” “She Towers Above” (Thirteen Years).

The latter album is rightly adjudged the desert-island disc of the two. Although Escovedo’s tentative experiments with working strings into a rock/folk/roots context on the edgy, diverse Gravity are impressive enough — in particular, the weeping cello anthemism of “Five Hearts Breaking” and the deft balance of light/dark and acoustic/electric dynamics in the title cut. But Thirteen Years sounds and feels cinematic by comparison. From the luscious baroque waltz “Ballad Of The Sun & The Moon” to the nocturnal, almost Morriconesque sway of “Baby’s Got New Plans” to the buoyant wall of massed electric-acoustic strings that powers “The End,” not a note seems out of place. The album has an underlying sonic cohesiveness too; the short instrumental “Thirteen Years Theme” surfaces four times throughout.

For these new reissues, both albums have been given the 24-bit remastering/bonus disc treatment. The former presents a ’93 live recording featuring Gravity material performed chamber quartet style, while Thirteen Years adds four instrumental mixes from the album alongside tracks that originally appeared on a ’94 EP — notably, a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” eerily appropriate for the context.

By the time of Thirteen Years Escovedo appeared relieved to have regained some perspective. “God bless the child who don’t have a mother to put her fast asleep/God bless the father who’s lost his lover for whom his soul to keep/Sometimes it takes more than just walking away” he sang, in “Way It Goes,” as if to say, these are still the ties that bind. It’s a theme that he’d tap again and again, particularly on 1998’s With These Hands, whose title song touched upon the physical, cultural and identity struggles of his father and other Mexican-American immigrants.

The new By The Hand Of The Father is a thematic culmination for Escovedo. It’s the sound track to the theater production of the same name (he collaborated with playwrights Theresa Chavez, Eric Gutierrez and Rose Portillo) and features new material plus rearranged tunes from previous Escovedo albums. It’s all performed by an ensemble that includes guest slots from percussionist Pete Escovedo, singer Rosie Flores and Los Lobos guitarist Cesar Rosas. Spoken voiceovers flesh out the narrative, although the music itself is draped in rich, nuanced imagery. Key tracks include a duet with Escovedo (in English) and Flores (en Español) in a newly Latinized “Ballad Of The Sun & The Moon,” the deeply romantic “Rosalie” and the autumnal folk confessional “Silence.”

And it’s the latter tune’s lyrical resonance that furrows the deepest. Sung from an aging, defeated father’s point of view, the lines go, in part, “I kept it all inside/How many tears can one man hide?/What would I say/If I was with you now?/To help you find your way/Could I still show you how?” Listening to By The Hand … in the larger context of Escovedo’s body of work, one senses how the songwriter’s journey turns full circle. His genius as an artist is to illuminate for the rest of us those epiphanies that kept him going.

E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].