Album Review: Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band – ‘Just Like Moby Dick’

Just Like Moby Dick is a late-career album that finds Terry Allen in his prime.

Terry Allen

All movements and trends in country music can be boiled down to a simple dichotomy – one between commercial aspirations and artistic integrity, with the lifeblood of the movement centered around which side wins out for the time being. One movement, centered around the outlaws of the ‘70s, hardly needs an introduction, though it’s worth a deeper analysis of what fueled that movement: a desire for artistic freedom, for one; especially when younger artists of the time entered an industry caught between aging traditionalists and the Countrypolitans. But there’s also the regionalism aspect of it, namely in how many emerging country songwriters of the ‘70s hailed from Texas. Of course, even that discussion splits off into its own subsections: artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (and more) looked to change the industry from the inside out while artists like Townes Van Zandt and Joe Ely (and, again, so many more) didn’t quite set their sets on conquering Nashville.

Regardless, Rodney Crowell can likely say what I’m trying to in a more succinct manner with a quote from the Ken Burns Country Music documentary: “Texans have always had this independent streak of doing shit the way they want it, the way they hear it, and the way they want to do it.” And regardless of which or how many fans these artists reached, or which channel they used to get their messages across, there was an independent drive to the passion and approach. In that sense, Terry Allen feels like another subsection of that discussion – certainly not an artist ever set for country radio airplay, and not even one looking to tap into the deepest, darkest parts of himself through his music; but rather one always set to look at the bigger picture; and that’s not even counting his larger contributions through his poems and paintings. The most obvious nods to that come through in his two most notable concept albums – Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything) – showing that even if Allen’s artistic drive pointed elsewhere, it was still there. It’s a dangerous word to use in abundance, but “unique” is the most appropriate way to describe Allen.

Believe it or not, those are still relevant points when approaching his newest album, Just Like Moby Dick, his first album in seven years, and one where he collaborated with heavyweight musical contenders like never before, featuring the full Panhandle Mystery Band and equally heavy co-writers. And as for whether that “fire” still burns … well, yes, but to a different degree; the larger cultural discussions are here, but the bigger focus centers more around endings and moving on to whatever is next. A somber outlook, at least on the surface, but also one tempered with a weary resignation that comes with age and time. Of course, it’s great, but for different reasons than what typically colors a great Terry Allen album.

There’s a difference, however, between acknowledging mortality and outright giving up. This extends more toward lyrics and themes, but there’s a noticeable kick to this project, at least compared to Allen’s usually subtle, more intimate releases. Still an acquired taste – at least if we’re being honest – and still carrying the same basic foundation, but there’s a warm richness provided by the fuller ensemble here that makes it one of Allen’s best-sounding albums yet. Couple that, too, with some great variety in the instrumentation and warm, organic textures that balance gritty percussion and acoustics where every strum is captured, and there’s some fantastic moments here: the fantastic groove on “Abandonitis,” courtesy of a djembe no less; the interplay of the dobro, violin and accordion on “All That’s Left Is Fare-Thee-Well” that adds a fond wistfulness to Allen and Charlie Sexton’s deliveries; and the naturally soulful groove of “All These Blues Go Walkin’ By,” courtesy of Shannon McNally. Like all of Allen’s work, it’s baked with a Texas flavor – especially a track like “Houdini Didn’t Like The Spiritualists” – but the blend is more noticeably pronounced.

Well, that, and the fact that Allen, Sexton and McNally are all also able to subtly balance the emotions present here with rough-edged, hard bitten yet smoother sentiments. Truthfully, Allen has lost the immediacy of his tone over the years, but what he’s gained in the process – to no surprise – is experience and wisdom; still looking to make a point, but one that speaks more to basic human emotion over a larger cultural point. Oh, that’s still present, sure, but I’d argue the anti-war American Childhood trilogy halfway through isn’t quite as sharp as it could be (even if some of it is from 2003), held back by splitting its larger point up over three songs that spreads its message too thin by doing so. The same basic point can be said for the similar “City Of The Vampires,” especially with its garish, curdled bassline.

If anything, Allen makes his point in ways that have to be experienced, rather than read, through wildly off-kilter, brilliant stories. Now, I get the feeling Allen would argue each song is a self-contained story, and that reaching for an overarching point is probably reading too much into it, especially when something like “Houdini Didn’t Like The Spiritualists” is a pure historical account, and when considered how it fits into Allen’s larger artistic ambitions outside of the music. But there is a thematic undercurrent to this record – maturity and time. It’s something that crept up on the narrators and characters here, with the time either wasted or just having slipped away. It says something, after all, that tracks like “Death Of The Last Stripper,” “Pirate Jenny” and “Harmony Two” are the most low-key, subtle tracks here, especially when they (arguably) contain the heaviest lyrical content. And yet for as sordid as the characters here are, there’s an odd lack of judgment to this record. There’s empathy felt on “Death Of The Last Stripper,” especially when, with the entire town these characters live in sitting in a state of decay, they understand; and while there’s no condoning the titular character’s actions on “Pirate Jenny,” the larger focus is on trying to understand her and how that darkness in her mind came to be. And even if Houdini is going to try his hardest to take down those mediums, he acknowledges his own hypocrisy by wanting to believe in that kind of afterlife, especially when he’s, you know, an illusionist.

If I were to nitpick, though, it’d be in the execution of that theme. In a nutshell, Just Like Moby Dick is about the basic state of humanity itself, watching destruction all around, yet doing everything we can to find some level of inner stability, especially when everyone is in the same metaphorical boat just sailing on through. Again, as evidenced by the stories, Allen does that in his own way, but certain tracks like “Abandonitis” and “All That’s Left Fare-Thee-Well” do feel a bit slight in their messages and content, and I’m not quite sure “Sailin’ On Through” delivers the best ending to that thematic arc, even if its lack of answers and simplicity is part of the larger point. But again, even if the acknowledgment of mortality is on full display here, it’s not Allen’s swan song; nor is it even an example of an artist delivering any less than their best. For as heavy-handed as the themes seem, it’s all delivered with Allen’s usual wry, lighthearted humor and witty perspective, and that’s something we could all use more of right now – levity in the face of darkness without forgetting the larger point at hand.

(Decent 8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Pirate Jenny,” “Death Of The Last Stripper,” “All These Blues Go Walkin’ By (w/ Shannon McNally),” “Houdini Didn’t Like The Spiritualists,” “Sailin’ On Through”
  • Least favorite track: “City Of The Vampires”

Buy or stream the album.

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