Like any enduring goddess, Exene Cervenka has been many things to many people, from punk rocker to performance poet, to, on the present recording, country songstress. Considered as an autochthonous deity, Cervenka is both firmly attached to specific locations (here, a lyrical Lar of US states from Arizona to Oklahoma) and displays a more universal, affective spirit. Unfortunately, as with so many other deities in the contemporary era, Cervenka’s gift to her adherents rests on past eminence rather than present greatness. It would be a disservice, however, to imply that Cervenka is trading on her own past glories, the most notable being of course the punk heights scaled by X; rather, it is the rutted highways of Americana and country music from which The Excitement of Maybe draws inspiration.
In pursuing these influences, Cervenka continues further along the path trodden on 2009’s Somewhere Gone, though The Excitement of Maybe is lusher and less raw. So, has Cervenka mellowed with age? For some time now, the driving punk energy of her X days has alternated with, or even been replaced by, a gentler approach encompassing folk and country — which isn’t to say that these tealeaves (or, rather, moonshine dregs) couldn’t be read in the early work. The socio-political concerns (and trailer-trash aesthetic) that characterized Cervenka’s lyrics have taken a bow; and while Cervenka thereby avoids the Scylla of didacticism, the Charybdis of the commonplace threatens.
Rather than social critique, then, we’re more concerned with a spatialized romantic longing. While the well-worn quality of the Americana tradition certainly jibes with the lyrics, for this very reason they lay bare a clichéd vista depicting a world where the twelfth of never will either bring a heaven-sent lover or find one standing in the rain pleading for one’s baby not to go. Cervenka’s breathy voice has never been her strongest asset, but the melancholy country background makes it an advantage. And indeed, the strongest songs are the most mournful. Cervenka’s take on the decay of society is here transmuted into a personal lament for loss, for that decay as falling away, tears of rage becoming the genuine article. Nonetheless, the emotional bite of earlier tracks like “Lonesome War” has been lost somewhere along the highway. And while there are some upbeat moments, and occasional hints of rock[abilly] (not to mention gospel), there’s nothing with the swing of a “White Trash Wife.” Yet at times the gorgeous acoustic guitar work recalls another stripped-down album released by fellow late-career punk transgressives — Shadow Project’s From The Heart — while elsewhere there are echoes of the gentler, bluesier moments of (sometime collaborator) Lydia Lunch and Rowland S. Howard’s Shotgun Wedding. The Excitement of Maybe, however, is an album with a far less bleak outlook than either. And as such, the allure extends to strings and steel guitar creating velvety textures in the fine ol’ tradition of Nashville sound.
But that’s a double-barrelled shotgun. Where The Excitement of Maybe shines — like a harvest moon — is in production, composition, and musicianship, but these alone aren’t enough to sustain the distinctive voice Cervenka has spoken in so boldly, particularly when they’re employed in the service of pastiche. Cervenka has always been less middle-of-the-road, more crossroads. In an age of bland consumer spirituality and revivals free from fire and brimstone, her devotees can only hope she’s not walking away from that profane pulpit.