It may be simplistic to describe Alejandro Escovedo's 2006 album The Boxing Mirror as a record inspired by the artist's brush with death, but given the record's back story -- it was recorded as Escovedo was recovering from a near-fatal bout with Hepatitis C -- it's hard not to imagine its brave and often dazzling creative ambition was fueled by Escovedo's knowledge that these could be his last words as a musician. Two years later, a healthier and stronger Escovedo returned to the studio to record his ninth studio album, Real Animal, and by comparison this is a leaner, more tightly focused session; in fact, this is the strongest rock album Escovedo has made since his 1997 album with Buick MacKane, The Pawn Shop Years. It's easy to tag Real Animal as a less ambitious and artful collection than The Boxing Mirror, but viewed on its own merits this ranks with the best and most powerful music of Escovedo's career. Like The Boxing Mirror, which was produced by John Cale, Real Animal was recorded with a producer who worked with some of Escovedo's primal influences, Tony Visconti, and his recordings with David Bowie and T. Rex doubtless helped him connect with Escovedo the smart but swaggering rocker in a way Cale did not; this set of songs is every bit as intelligent and emotionally resonant as Escovedo's best work, but it moves with a taut energy and insistent force that informs even the quieter, acoustic oriented numbers, such as the bluesy "People (We're Only Gonna Live So Long)," and the plaintive "Hollywood Hills." While Escovedo wrote the tunes on Real Animal with Chuck Prophet, the songs bear his stylistic hallmarks and melodic sensibilities throughout, and these stories are dotted with places and events from Escovedo's past -- discovering music as a kid ("Golden Bear"), his days as a San Francisco punk rocker ("Nun's Song"), flirting with the New York bohemian scene ("Chelsea Hotel '78"), and barnstorming with a rock & roll band ("Chip 'N' Tony"). Even when the cues to Escovedo's past aren't obvious, there's too much heart, soul, and blood in this music to not to have come directly from his heart, and he's seemingly incapable of singing from any other place, giving this music an emotional power that reaches down to the soul. If The Boxing Mirror was a work influenced by the shadow of mortality, Real Animal is an album about life -- both as survival and as the faces and moments that fill our days on this Earth. How many artists could make two masterpieces in a row that are so different? And how much do you want to bet that Escovedo still has one or two more records this good in him?
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming