The idea that rock and roll being dead means nothing to Calvin Johnson – ‘A Wonderful Beast’ is an exploration of sound that brazenly fuses myriad facets of rock’s history. Working closely with producer Patrick Carney (The Black Keys) and chief engineer Marc Whitmore, their aim was to test the resilience of such time-honoured materials as the electric guitar, modular synthesizer and trap drum kit, combining them in various arrangements with musical elements such as chords A, C and Dm. The results are as much a shattering of the formula as a timely reminder of modern rock music’s potential.
By allowing contemporary music and songwriting to influence the team, ‘A Wonderful Beast’ sounds exactly what you’d expect rock and roll to sound like in 2018 if we were still living in the genre’s supposed heyday. It retrofits classic elements of rock music and abuses them by way of bold experimentation.
The outcome is that there are moments here that could easily be some of Calvin Johnson’s best work since the days of Beat Happening: for instance, the gentle romance of (‘I’ve Still Got) Sand in my Shoes’ – one of three tracks buoyed by the talents of chanteuse Michelle Branch – features vocal harmonies that recall the soft/sonorous juxtaposition of Johnson and Heather Lewis.
Conversely, the album occasionally lets itself down. ‘When The Weekend Comes Around’ elicits Johnson’s predilection for gimmicky dance music – as evidenced in his other project, Selector Dub Narcotic – but you could argue that it’s symptomatic of Johnson’s playfulness that would be left wanting if it didn’t appear here. As visionary as it is mischievous, ‘A Wonderful Beast’ is a fun and ambitious album that’s as pop as it is at times wonderfully peculiar.