The Boxing Mirror is Alejandro Escovedo's first album in four years. On it he stands at the crossroads of his own life's work. Escovedo has always kept his music balanced on a fine line: on one side is his trademark elegant, poetic brand of sophisticated pop, and on the other is an original, tough, savvy rock & roll that encompasses not only grit but texture and dynamic while keeping its eyes on the street. On The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo and producer John Cale erase the line: rock, pop, country, Tejano, and other folk forms are woven into a rich, colorful fabric without regard for classification. His studio band is the finest he's ever assembled, and it includes guitarist Jon Dee Graham, violinist Susan Voelz, cellist Brian Standefer, primary bassist Mark Andes, drummer Hector Muñoz , Bruce Salmon on keyboards, accordionist Otoño Lujan, and guitarist David Polkingham. If ever there were an album to introduce new listeners to Escovedo's music, it's The Boxing Mirror. This one has to do it. It's rich, lush, and full of small silences and roars. The rocker "Break This Time" is a straight-out guitar scream that could have been performed by Escovedo's former band, the True Believers--if they had strings. They add to the bottom in this poignant track, as the guitars wail and shuffle with garage rock abandon and a smoking, wildly distorted six-string solo played by Graham (an amazingly gifted songwriter in his own right). Graham plays another one, as does Cale, in the album's final rock freakout, "One True Love" (written with Chris Stamey during the Man Under the Influence sessions), which closes the set. Yet this is hardly the whole story -- in fact, it's not even the beginning. Escovedo's sense of drama is in place on every track here, such as the album's moody opener, "Arizona." Keyboards open it with strange, displaced sounds that are quickly picked up by the strings and bassline. He sings "Have another drink on me/I've been empty since Arizona/I turned my back on me/And I faced the face I thought I was...." His lyric articulation in this noir-ish desert expressionist tale digs right into the middle of the instrumentation, which folds him in.
The tempo picks up on "Dear Head on the Wall," written with poet and Bulgarian refugee cum Texas resident Kim Christoff -- who also co-wrote the title cut and "Notes on Air" with Standefer and others (the only track Escovedo didn't write or co-write). The cello is the driving instrument on "Dear Head on the Wall," and Voelz's violin fills the space between sung lines as the drums pump the entire thing into a gorgeous if deeply melancholy orchestral pop tune. The aforementioned darkly surreal "Notes on Air" is introduced by electric guitar, and it guides a midtempo country-rock tune whose dynamics are the most shattering on the entire album. The mood picks up in the pop/rocker "Looking for Love," a richly textured poignant observation on love that is offset by hooks and gorgeous harmony singing. On the latter half of the set, the beautiful and tender "Evita's Lullaby" weaves together acoustic guitars, strings, drums, and Escovedo's evocative lyrics sung in a voice that seems to be saying goodbye even as the words come up from his belly. "Sacramento & Polk" is another blazing, distorted caterwauling rocker that could have come from Detroit in the late '60s. The off-kilter, hooky guitar and strings pop in "Take Your Place," sounding like an update of something on the Buddha label from the early '70s -- but it has sharp teeth and a sense of warmth and humor missing from bubblegum records. The Boxing Mirror is the album Escovedo has been striving to make his entire career. It is a conglomeration of styles, arrangements, and surfaces he has used before, but here it not only gels, it compels. This is rock & roll of an entirely different stripe. It's music that combines real-life poetry with a prismatic vision of life under the skin, in the place where the heart pumps real blood; emotions get tangled up in this mix and are expressed in unexpected, often uncomfortabe, ways. The Boxing Mirror reels and struts, waltzes, and falls down, but always gets back up again. Rock & roll music has been extended in the various articulations of these songs. In the 21st century, this is what singer/songwriter albums are supposed to sound like. The Boxing Mirror is brilliant, and it is his masterpiece.