X – Alphabetland
Sometimes it’s wise to let an album sit for a bit after first hearing it, picking it back up a while later to see if it still warrants the praise slobbered upon it during your initial excitement. This practice helps ensure a more clearheaded assessment of the album’s strengths and weaknesses, unclouded by the knee-jerk elation of first contact. At least, that’s my lame excuse for putting off reviewing the new X album – which made a surprise arrival in April – ’til this cursed year’s damn near done with.
I’m happy to report that Alphabetland holds up several months on down the line, with a reckless and rollicking sturdiness authentic enough to convince the most jaded of skeptics. I mean, it’s not altogether unsurprising. Upon careening back into action in 2004, the original quartet of John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake lit stages afire with a legitimately thrilling ferocity. I’ve seen numerous X shows since – some were better than others, none was weak. And if it seems like 16 years is a long time to scrabble together a new album, well, it’s obvious from cranking up Alphabetland that their standards were admirably high. Think about all the reunited geezer bands that never bother releasing anything new or, more commonly, release instantly forgettable dreck that’s a stain on their legacy. Or put out the dreaded album of “unplugged” versions of their greatest hits. Barf city!
X are having none of that, instead blasting through a barrage of rapid-fire detonations that carry the energy of their early work but with a wizened maturity, leaving “atom bomb bruises,” to quote a line from Exene in the opening title track. Evocative lyrics – passionate, pointed, poetic and often quite witty – are hooted and howled by her and John with a gleeful exuberance, pogoing back and forth and provoking goosebumps when they unite in headlong harmony. Billy Zoom jabs out electric guitar jolts and spasms in rapid-fire velocity, raw and jagged, with foundational echoes of rockabilly – and is that a bit of “Third Stone From the Sun” he tosses into “I Gotta Fever”? “Cyrano de Berger’s Back” from See How We Are is revamped in a funky, chunkier take that wouldn’t have been out of place on More Fun in the New World, topped by Zoom honkin’ out some sock hop saxophone. While it may be a stretch to say these songs and other loud ‘n’ frantic Alphabetland standouts – “Free,” “Star Chambered,” “Delta 88 Nightmare,” “Water & Wine” – would’ve effortlessly slotted onto the band’s first few albums, they slam together as a whole in way that’s similar, propelled by power honed by age and experience.
X’s loose association with The Doors (more mutual appreciation, to be honest) enjoys a slight return 40 years after Ray Manzarek produced their indispensable debut album Los Angeles (as well as their three subsequent ones), as Robby Krieger lays spooky slide guitar on closing cut, “All the Time in the World,” which enters An American Prayer territory as Exene voices her poetry to the Amsterdam coffee shop accompaniment of Zoom, I’m assuming, on beat-jazz piano. It’s an odd, completely incongruous adieu from what is otherwise a raging rock record. I’m still not sure it fits, but like the album’s arrival itself, it catches you off guard – a wild gift, indeed. But if you’d rather pull the needle ahead of time, that’s certainly forgivable: the previous cut punches with a jittery fluster that’s coursed through the band’s veins since day one, complete with a fitting title not only for a rousing sendoff of X’s best album since Under the Big Black Sun but applicable for these final staggering weeks of 2020 to boot: “Goodbye Year, Goodbye.”