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The Examined Life

After a brush with death, Alejandro Escovedo cleans up, digs deep and resurfaces with a gem

Something happens to the human brain as it ages -- perhaps more so to that of an artist who's spent a life observing. Time becomes less linear, chronology fades away, and events morph together, rendering the realm of experience more as an impressionist painting than a crisp photograph. A brush with death can further untether a soul from the mundane day-to-day constraints that -- for most of us, anyway -- obfuscate life's precious truths. Take, for instance, Neil Young's recent concert doc Heart of Gold, filmed not long after his life-threatening brain aneurysm. Throughout the movie, Young seems unstuck in time -- as if he were an observer, looking down on his world from above, appreciating the rareness of a single human life amid the infinity of possibility.

The same appears to be true for Alejandro Escovedo on his new album, The Boxing Mirror.

He, too, had a near-death experience: He collapsed during a 2002 performance from the effects of hepatitis C and too much hard living, and throughout his three-year recovery, the situation was touch and go. Like Young, Escovedo seems to have arrived at a place where he's looking down on his world from above, where life's events are no longer isolated occurrences of "good" or "bad" but preordained threads in a greater whole.

Take, for example, The Boxing Mirror's opening track, "Arizona." Escovedo reflects on two developments at opposite extremes -- the onstage collapse and his meeting the poet Kim Christoff, who would become his wife -- both of which took place in the 48th state. But Arizona seems to take on greater significance, possibly a metaphor for the revelation that seemingly unrelated circumstances are inseparable: "You say I've lost my way / But it's all a dream / Since Arizona / One kiss just led to another / One kiss just fades into lover." Though hardly the household name that Young is, Escovedo has earned a level of admiration from music writers and peers that few musicians ever achieve. (He probably has the highest critical-praise-to-commercial-success ratio of any current singer-songwriter. ) This isn't insider adulation of the "fashionable to name-check, difficult to listen to" variety; he has been making hauntingly beautiful music since embarking on a solo career 15 years ago, and The Boxing Mirroris no exception.

During his recovery, Escovedo turned to Buddhism, and allusions to the religion's concepts -- of emptying oneself of preconceptions, of finding truth in the stillness of the moment -- can be heard in the lyrics on several tracks. In "Looking for Love," he sings, "I believe all that you've written / I believe all that you know / Has somehow been mistaken / For the truth inside this show." He seems on the verge of a meltdown in "Break this Time," but then reconsiders: "So break a picture / Or better yet sit there / Inside the stillness." In "Evita's Lullabye," he beseeches his dead father to comfort his distraught widowed mother with the words "Whisper tell her / What it feels like / To be empty, to be free."

For Escovedo, a huge Velvet Underground fan since the '60s, working with producer and former VU member John Cale was the realization of a dream, and the resulting arrangements are lovely -- somehow lush and spare at the same time. From the spectral, discordant lap steel that erupts after the line "You see a buck from the sky / Trample a wandering doe," on "Notes on Air," to the apocalyptic string outro of "Sacramento and Polk," to the austere, thrice-repeated violin note that recurs throughout "Dear Head on the Wall," an elegant dissonance pervades the album -- fitting for a songwriter who so often seeks to uncover the beauty in sadness.

It's tough to say whether The Boxing Mirror is Escovedo's best album; A Man Under the Influence, released in 2001, is equally captivating and features a similar symphonic grandeur. Ultimately, what does it matter? They're both required listening. And for Escovedo's fans, who consider the man more of a beloved family member than an exalted star, The Boxing Mirror is most important a balm, a sign that their brother, on the brink of death for a couple of years, has pulled through to reinvent himself one more time -- and with a newfound appreciation for life.

That's not to say that he now sits cross-legged in some sort of rose-colored nirvana. Whereas Young seems to have made peace with his demons long ago, Escovedo's pursuers are still visible in his rearview mirror. The guy who played with the Bay Area punk band the Nuns in the '70s and the seminal (if short-lived) cow-punks Rank and File in the early '80s has hardly lost his edge; clouds still loom on the horizon. (Things don't get much grimmer than "Sacramento and Polk," a song from Escovedo's 1999 album Bourbonitis Bluesthat he revisits on The Boxing Mirror.) But it seems that, with time, not to mention the perspective a scrape with mortality brings, pain and dark impulses have lost some of their ability to torment; they're now just different shades on the palette of human experience.

 
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