Terry Allen's debut, Juarez, originally released in 1976, was thankfully reissued in 2004 to claim its place as one of the greatest albums ever recorded in any genre. And if that's not enough of a pretentious pronouncement, I'll go ahead and call Juarez one of the finest works of 20th-century American literature, based mostly on its utterly unique approach to dramatic narrative.
As if that weren't enough, Allen is also an accomplished visual artist, incorporating mixed media, including painting, video and even taxidermy into his installations. Juarez, in fact, grew out of one such art project, in turn inspiring Allen to create paintings of the album's characters, which were released as lithographs with the first copies; regrettably, they are not reproduced here.
Musically, Juarez is a bare-bones affair, with Allen's honky-tonk piano and creaky voice accompanied sparsely. But here that subtlety gradually takes on an incontrovertible power, pushing the willing listener to stumble, Twilight Zone-style, into some dusty, deserted Western tavern. Or really any place where the piano player can decorate with aural wallpaper one minute before spinning a yarn that's so provocative and harrowing, you wonder whether he might be one of the omniscient few, joining God and Satan. Allen tells a story of characters imprisoned as much by the ghosts of global history as their own pasts, a story about the hidden limits inherent in the seemingly limitless landscape of the American West.
Allen's laconic narration defines four characters and their tale: a naive Navy man, Sailor, with his new love, a Mexican prostitute named Spanish Alice, and a Juarez-born badass, Jabo, who persuades his Los Angeles girlfriend Chic Blundie to accompany him on a trip home--by way of Cortez, Colo. The story's end--Sailor and Alice's deaths at Jabo's hands, accompanied by Jabo and Chic's breakup--is foretold from the beginning.
Nothing--not time, not identity--is sacred in Allen's songs. "Cortez Sail" finds Jabo and Chic leaving L.A., then tilts 400 years into the past, to the arrival of the explorer who gave the Colorado town its name: "Yeah, Cortez he comes with his men and his guns/ And a Spanish Christ alive on his lip." Just as abruptly, the song shifts from that chronological violation back into a present that actually takes place after a climactic murder that won't occur until eight songs later. Are you following this?
The next song, the two-part "Dogwood," takes the story back 2,000 years. It starts from the point of view of Christ's cross and becomes one of the most profound spirituals of the modern era: "But the iron that they used ahhh to nail him to me/ Lingers dark in the bark of a dogwood tree." Immediately after that line, the entire lament is revealed as a preface to Jabo's seduction of Chic, an odd shift that is emblematic of Juarez's skewed moral compass.
The rest of the story follows in strikingly odd form, from Chic's mystical monologue, "Writing on Rocks Across the U.S.A.," to the hilarious juxtaposition of love and lust in "The Radio' and Real Life," to Jabo's venomous "There Oughtta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California." And then there's the tender, contrasting character study of Sailor and Alice, "What of Alicia," and the existential barroom singalong closer "La Despedida (The Parting)." The breadth of Allen's work is a testament to the limitless world of music inspired by the American West, a place Allen re-creates with a very real sense of restriction and an untethered imagination. Anyone interested in great American music should seek out this stunningly unique and powerful album.