Wilko Johnson, “Blow Your Mind” (UMe/Chess)
Wilko Johnson’s new album is a raucous blast of life, overshadowed by mortality.
At 70, the British guitarist has been invigorated by a reprieve from death. In 2012, Johnson — former member of U.K. blues-rock rabble-rousers Dr. Feelgood — was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told it was terminal. He went on a farewell tour and recorded a “final” album with Roger Daltrey of The Who.
Then a fan who was also a cancer specialist offered to help. After surgery to remove a 6.6-pound tumor, Johnson announced in 2014 he was cancer-free.
Now he’s back with “Blow Your Mind,” his first album of new material in three decades, and a record Johnson says he thought he’d never make.
Musically, he hasn’t changed much from the raw-boned musician who emerged from England’s Canvey Island in the 1970s with a choppy, relentless guitar style and a thousand-yard glare — a look terrifying enough to earn him a role as a silent executioner on “Game of Thrones.”
Joined by longtime collaborators Norman Watt-Roy on bass and drummer Dylan Howe, he offers up dirty, bluesy rock on tracks like the swaggering love anthem “Blow Your Mind,” the catchy, singalong-style “Tell Me One More Thing” or the strutting “That’s the Way I Love You.”
The lyrics, written in the shadow of death, sometimes take a melancholy turn. “Marijuana” muses on anxiety as darkness steals in. “Somewhere in the dark there’s a clock ticking out my time,” Johnson sings to Steve Weston’s spicy, soulful harmonica backing.
“Low Down” is meditative blues, seasoned with Weston’s harmonica and organ from former Style Council keyboardist Mick Talbot. The poignant penultimate song, “Say Goodbye,” finds Johnson musing: “Lucky river, rolling on …. Now it’s time to say goodbye.”
But not just yet. The album closer, “Slamming,” is a romping instrumental that sees Johnson’s guitar cavorting with Talbot’s boogie-woogie piano. Even in dark times, let the good times roll.
JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press