Considering his dramatic personal history — one rife with drug mishaps, electro-shock therapy, and crippling mental disease — a new album from Roky Erickson is nothing short of a miracle. You’re Gonna Miss Me, the 2005 documentary of Erickson’s life, raised his profile considerably, a human interest story that appealed to more than just record geeks and psych enthusiasts. True Love Casts Out All Evil, Erickson’s collaboration with Will Sheff and his Texas band Okkervil River, is a record as much for those newcomers as it is for old fans — it offers a sense of calm and resolution to the film’s hesitantly optimistic end, while carefully referencing Erickson’s difficult road and musical past.
Sheff and his band seem like an odd fit at first. Erickson’s past collaborators and live partners — acts like Butthole Surfers, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and The Black Angels — have all shared a certain mystical Texan stripe. Okkervil River have rarely tapped into that haunted wellspring on their own albums, opting more often for stately high drama over the delirium present in Erickson’s work. True to form, Sheff maintains a certain politeness on the record: the songs here are a tempered collection of folk and country forms.
Despite my initial disappointment with Sheff’s grand production, the more time I spend with Erickson’s words, the more appropriate it becomes, suiting the songs’ weighty and, ultimately, holy themes. Songs like “Be and Bring Me Home” waltz with a hymnal solemnity, warm and tender as Erickson pledges his eternal love to his family, celebrating the fact that he is no longer bound in “dirty prisons.” The title track offers more gospel-like clarity. Erickson has spent the majority of his career singing about evil, be it in the form of aliens, zombies, or demons, and now he’s gained some semblance of grace, intoning that “True love will cast out all evil/ Right now/ Right now” over weeping pedal steel.
Not that Sheff has completely disregarded the frayed loose ends that have always existed in Erickson’s music. The record opens with an archival track; “Devotional Number One,” recorded while Erickson was in Rusk State Hospital, finds him extolling Christ as “not a hallucinogenic mushroom” over a tape-warbled acoustic guitar, before giving way to a feedback swell, perhaps an ode to the white noise cocoon in which Erickson would often wrap himself at his home, with multiple electronic devices all blaring white noise. “John Lawman” reels with a ferocious bite, not out of place with Erickson’s Aliens catalog. “Think Of As One” is a soulful strutter, with electric piano and a shuffling beat, over which Erickson lays out an existential call for unity with his rough-hewn voice.
Skepticism over a young artist “reconnecting” an older artist to the music world is always natural in a situation like this (see Electric Mud), but here, Sheff proves his commitment to Erickson’s music, both on record and in the beautifully written liner notes, where he states: “I’m a cynical person, and I generally don’t believe stories about miracles. However, having personally seen what’s happened in Roky’s life, I feel surprised to hear myself vouching that his recovery is real…”
The record ends with another Rusk recording, “God is Everywhere,” with Erickson singing about “Thought-lost and never known treasures/ Coming back to we,” the dire situation in which it was recorded revealing that Erickson’s music was always about the cosmic search for redemption. True Love Will Cast Out All Evil is a rare example of a man finding peace on record, of a long journey being rewarded with a slight glimpse of salvation.