Johnny Dowd's first album, Wrong Side of Memphis, was the musical equivalent of The Blair Witch Project, but a fair bit scarier. Recording on a bunch of junk banjo, guitar, kiddie pump organ in the office of his Zolar moving company in Ithaca, N.Y., Dowd charged his bleak but beautiful surrealism with gnawing psychological tension. In a song for his father, Dowd croaked, "I was a disappointment right from the start, because you could recognize in me your own cold heart."
That mysterious complicity, of an audience or a God witnessing (even sharing) in black humor and blacker crimes, is all but extinguished on Pictures from Life's Other Side. Dowd again draws on Gothic murder ballads "Knoxville Girl," "Omie Wise," "Pretty Polly" a tradition that's nothing if not brutal. Once, or so it seemed, that violence was of some cosmic or spiritual consequence. No more. The sonic claustrophobia of his first album may be gone, replaced by a surfeit of analog noises and a band that wails like a black Mass, but gone, too, is the sense that Dowd's demonic portraits where attempted suicide is a mistake only because the shotgun didn't finish the job, where even the lilies of the valley are obscene could matter to anyone, least of all the singer. There's no hell to pay; he checked in a long time ago.
Perhaps Dowd's right: Cruelty and self-abnegation are pretty vacant these days. God may be out there, but he's too busy giggling at our struggle in the mire. Besides, it's all women's fault anyway. "God created woman," Dowd seethes, "but she's the devil's next of kin," which explains why he's so fucked. Elsewhere, he offers a stalker's titillation: "I looked in your window last night. I hope you don't mind." Who could, really, given Dowd's take on relationships: Screw 'em, curse 'em, kill 'em.
If anything redeems such exhibitionist masochism and misogyny, it's the putrid, deadpan honesty of Dowd's voice and, most convincingly, the fecundity of his imagination. Whatever he sings, you better believe it, even if, like the Son of Sam mutt, you want the damn thing out of your head. The primitive Beefheart attack of the percussion and Cuisinarted guitars; the xylophone, Farfisa and choked fiddles; the voices seeping out as if through the plumbing in the Bates Motel Dowd isn't some art-rocker getting his low-fi kicks. The grueling music he makes is his own heretical gospel truth.