Levon Helm: “Electric Dirt”
Don’t put too much stock in the title of Levon Helm’s new record, Electric Dirt. Given that this album follows on his critically-acclaimed, Grammy-winning comeback album, Dirt Farmer, by just two years, and that it features more or less the same cast of contributors– to say nothing of its similar title– you’d be forgiven for assuming that this album is something of a sequel.
And yeah, okay– it is. As the title indicates, it follows much the same formula as Dirt Farmer, once again following country and blues to their roots, but this time with the addition of electric guitar. But to call it a sequel to that record is to undersell the continuity of Helm’s entire career: Ever since he was with The Band, he’s been a man possessed by the strange ghosts of American roots music, playing with the mythology of Americana even as he writes his own place within its history. (And really, what else could one say of a song like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song that built new myths on top of existing ones?) His work has always been of a piece, and Electric Dirt is simply his latest spin on popular history, at once reverent and revisionist.
Actually, it’s as much a sequel to The Band as Dirt Farmer: Once again working with producer Larry Campbell, Helm– sounding youthful and strong– gathers a full band for a set of raucous roadhouse blues and aching Dixie spirituals. He turns the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” into a woozy, bloozy stomper, injecting it with Basement Tapes whimsy and a mind for mischief. He also transforms Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free” from a Civil Rights protest into a spiritual anthem. Allen Toussaint arranges for some New Orleans brass to anchor these songs in the deep and dirty south, and Helm’s daughter Amy provides glorious harmonies to spirited gospel numbers like “When I Go Away,” written by Campbell. There’s also a cover of Randy Newman‘s “Kingfish” that blasts clean through the original, upping both the energy and the humor.
Helm’s love of musical myth and history serves him particularly well on this set, which could have ended up as something somberly reflective and morbidly autobiographical– after all, Helm is now a 69-year-old cancer survivor, and conditions like that tend to cultivate in artists a particularly introspective bent. And there are, to be sure, songs about death here, but rather than being elegiac , this music is celebratory, so that even the songs about mortality are less about death and more about the joy of the coming life. And because Helm is so fascinated by folklore, the album never takes the shape of an autobiography– it’s as much a collection of stories as anything, even if there are some running threads through the songs. Indeed, the greatness of the record lies in the fact that a song like “Growin’ Trade”– one of two Helm originals, and a sublime piece that stands proudly along his best work– could be a metaphor for music-making, an acknowledgment of economic turmoil, or simply a new, rural myth that sounds like it’s old as the hills.
Helm is in fine voice throughout– in fact, he sounds more confident as both a singer and a drummer than he did on the slightly more tentative Dirt Farmer— and he sounds as though he’s simply having the time of his life making music. As he should be: His career could have been over, but instead he’s found himself making some of the most electrifying and alive music of his career. And there’s really no undervaluing this record in Helm’s body of work; raucous, funny, and frequently moving, this is a wild and winsome rewrite of American music history as seen through the eyes of one of its true geniuses, and as such it’s not just a notch better than Dirt Farmer, it’s actually deserving of a place beside Music from Big Pink and The Band.