For a high-profile artist who hasn’t released material in a while, mounting expectations can prove daunting. Maybe that’s why Calvin Johnson, never one to value delicacy or stringency or musicianship, deigned to release his newest project under the name The Hive Dwellers. Hewn From the Wilderness is Johnson’s first album in five years, following Calvin Johnson & the Sons of the Soil (much of which comprised updated covers of his own work), so there is understandable anticipation for his first release of entirely new material since the solo Before the Dream Faded in 2005. While The Hive Dwellers are currently a loose trio — consisting of Johnson, Gabriel Will, and Evan Hashi — augmented by the contributions of a revolving cast of K performers who favor a ramshackle garage sound, there is no Heather Lewis or Doug Martsch to share vocal duties, placing the onus solely on Johnson to carry the album with his charisma and husky baritone.
His K affiliates perform their duties competently, subbing in to add quaintly clumsy drums or a sluggish bassline to these mostly uncluttered songs, but arrangements were always an afterthought for Johnson, and here it is no different. His most endearing trait remains the insouciance that’s carried him safely past the nervy days of Beat Happening when he opened for punk acts, pelted by ashtrays, to his present control over a minor musical empire. His obsessions are still the same: the lonely, the downtrodden, the lovesick; all that’s changed is how he approaches them.
Displacing St. Valentine, “The Dignity of Saint Jude” is an apostrophe to the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, with Johnson imploring the apostle not to give up on him; “Get In,” the collection’s centerpiece, takes a more interesting stance on ostracism. Previously released on a 12-inch single in 2010 with a few hip-hop remixes of “Sitting Alone at the Movies,” another highlight, “Get In” is a celebration of outsiders, who are flatly categorized in a litany by Johnson and invited into his clubhouse, provided they are “emotionally crippled.” The song is an example of the youthful levity that’s marked his work since the 80s, even if lumping together those genuinely marginalized with sufferers of transient fashion faux pas (the slur “bulldyke” alongside “black bra white T-shirt”) seems a little insensitive.
But Johnson means well. The point is that we all have our own idiosyncrasies that keep us outside the norm (“We’re 95% of the human race,” he assures us), and this natural new direction suggests this happily incorrigible eternal teenager is maturing in his own way. Once you get to be as successful (and old, I guess) as Johnson is, it becomes a bit silly to continue playing the lovelorn loser card. So out goes arch innocence (though he holds on to the shaggy self-aware charm) and in comes an avuncular, occasionally morbid Johnson concerned with sheltering outcasts underneath his cheekily proffered umbrella, becoming a defender and savior for lost causes everywhere: a new St. Jude figure for a new generation.