Freedy Johnston sings like there's a brick on his chest. Each pinched, trembling note fights its way into the world and shows off its scars. Though Johnston's Midwestern-plain voice may be what keeps him from selling a gazillion records, it's probably a good thing; it keeps his bleakly beautiful melodies from wafting into the ether and grounds them in the desperate landscapes of their lyrics.
The 1992 album that first brought Johnston acclaim, "Can You Fly," achieved a perfect balance of hard-rocking dread and catchy-pop uplift. With songs like "The New Sunshine," a jittery anthem for a post-greenhouse-effect inferno, or "Responsible," a heartbreaking ballad sung by a parent to a lost child, you could never tell in advance whether Johnston was going to fling you heavenward or grind you into the dust. 1994's softer follow-up, "This Perfect World," set even grimmer vignettes -- like "Evie's Tears," about a woman's guilt-ridden affair with a priest -- to even more aching tunes and arrangements.
The opening notes of "On the Way Out" -- the first song on Johnston's latest recording, "Never Home" -- point back to the energetic sound of "Can You Fly": longtime Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Graham Maby (Joe Jackson, They Might Be Giants) kick into a nervous, tight groove and never let it go. Johnston sings: "On the way out I'm thinkin'/You get what you take anyway/On the way out you're watchin'/Wonder if I am gonna pay."
Johnston's songs are so often tinged with fears of punishment and intimations of mortality that at first you think you're hearing about some deathbed confessional. "On the Way Out" in fact turns out to be a wry little song about shoplifting. Yet that realization doesn't feel like a let-down. Johnston may have become more straightforward in his stories, but his realism never chokes off the possibility of deeper meanings; it just acknowledges how tough a fight the world puts up when people seek them.
"Never Home" is full of sharp visions of characters and tales that stand on their own particulars yet beckon darkly toward the universal. "Gone to See the Fire" proves on close inspection to be about a woman's discovery that her new boyfriend's a pyromaniac; but couldn't it also stand for any couple's attempt to reignite passion in forbidden ways? "Western Sky" -- about a man whose fear of flying separates him from his family for a trip out West -- buries its hints of tragedies past and future in a sweet mesh of lap steel guitar.
Johnston is always at his best observing the sometimes furtive, sometimes defiant behavior of people walking out on other people -- as in the doomed crackling of doubled guitars in "He Wasn't Murdered" or the tormented indecision of the lover who's just learned his girlfriend is pregnant in "If It's True." The singer himself is always ready to confess misdeeds: "Can You Fly" kicked in with a line about Johnston's sale of his family's Kansas home to scratch out the start of a musical career; "Perfect World" opened with the words, "I know I got a bad reputation, and it isn't just talk, talk, talk." Johnston's third songwriting masterpiece in a row, "Never Home" shows that whoever and whatever he may be afraid of betraying, his own talent remains immune to sell-out.