Released to complete indifference in the United States a full year after its issue on the Finac label in France, Willy DeVille's Backstreets of Desire stands tall as his masterpiece as both a singer and a songwriter. DeVille's considerable reputation in Paris -- he regularly filled the Olympia Theater there and had Edith Piaf's arranger writing charts and conducting an orchestra for him -- buoyed him up to make this disc at a handful of studios in his adopted New Orleans home. With guest spots by Dr. John, Zachary Richard, and David Hidalgo, DeVille creates a tapestry of roots rock and Crescent City second line, traces of '50s doo wop, and elegant sweeping vistas of Spanish soul balladry, combined with lyrics full of busted-down heroes, hungry lovers, and wise men trying to get off the street. The sound of the album balances Creole soul and pure rock pyrotechnics. DeVille sounds like a man resurrected, digging as deep as the cavernous recesses of the human heart will allow him to on "Empty Heart"; he brings down the house roaring on "All in the Name of Love," with its forlorn but anthemic refrain underscored by Dr. John's gutter funk guitar playing. "Even While I Sleep" features DeVille in a smoky falsetto shuffling along with Hidalgo's squeezebox and Brian Ray's rockabilly guitar picking. The cover of Billy Roberts' "Hey Joe" is a radically new and moving interpretation of the song, with only Jimi Hendrix' version topping it. The New Orleans street jazz on "Voodoo Charm" throws a curve to the emotionally intense contents with a backbone slip rhythm and popping horns in a slow stroll. In all, Backstreets of Desire reveals more about where DeVille had been than he'd perhaps like listeners to know. The wasted rock & roll junkie may have been resurrected from the dead by music (unlike his neighbor Johnny Thunders), but the darkness that informed that soul graces this music with a ragged elegance and tough grace.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek