Album Review: John Craigie – Asterisk The Universe

As the son of a US Air Force general, it is probably safe to assume that John Craigie’s more beatnik tendencies didn’t develop until he moved to Santa Cruz. This cool, coastal Californian town may be more famous as the murder capital of the world in 80s vampire flick ‘The Lost Boys’, but it is also a little oasis of Bohemia and it is here that Craigie cultivated his troubadour style that has emerged over several immensely assured albums of acoustic Americana since 2009. Musical interludes have also included an album of Led Zeppelin covers, further enhancing the paradigms he is operating within. New record Asterisk the Universe is further evidence of his consummate skill as a lyricist and musician.

The 2018 album Scarecrow was a mostly tender, stripped back affair, but from the moment opener ‘Hustlin” roles in, there’s a sense that Craigie has decided to add a bit more attitude and texture to proceedings. The warm wurlitzer of Jamie Coffis is a subtle inflection over Craigie’s delicate acoustic guitar, but jazzy bass lines and a crisp electric guitar bow and bend around his acceptance of his own troubadour label; “I always wanted to be a healer and give out medicine / I was too dumb to be a doctor so I do this / They say your dream job won’t pay your bills / They said change your dream but I just changed my bills / I’m hustlin’, baby” he sings and you just know this is a moment of clarity and this album is a kind of personal confession. ‘Don’t Ask’ pursues this more sanguine approach. The meter of the song is a delight, the organ more brazen and the harmonies laid on by the Rainbow Girls full of a sparky sassiness. ‘Son of a Man’ may be a bit more restrained but the warm, chocolatey vocals are a delight.

‘Part Wolf’ is a slick river of cool. Multiple wurlitzer layers swirl amidst Craigie’s tenacious vocals and when he sings “This is the year that we’ll be kickin’ his ass out / Maybe you been sleepin’ maybe you been passed out / I’m here to shake ya, here to wake your ass up now”, we hear a wake-up call that could not have come at a more appropriate time.

Thus far, there has been a real swagger to proceedings. The paradigms of the Americana/bluegrass genres mean it never gets above its station and the short siren-esque interlude that the Rainbow Girls provide on ‘Used it All Up’ adds some pathos to the record before the magnificent ‘Don’t Deny’ brings some Dylan-esque alacrity to the party, which is carefully tempered by the valedictory tone of ‘Vallecito’.

This ebb and flow is an absolute delight but it would only be right to end on a song that brings together everything that has come before it. ‘Nomads’ is perhaps more orthodox in form but it allows all the strengths of these perfect moments that proceeded it to be presented in one final glorious moment of fellowship.

Iain Fox