Had his story not been so pitifully short, Evan Dando would have been good VH1 Behind the Music material. As it stands, the lazy-eyed heartthrob of mid-90’s slacker pop spent the last decade in the woods of half-remembered infamy.
After his last bona fide hit, 1993’s “Into Your Arms,” the former frontman for the Lemonheads derailed his career with crack cocaine and subsequently did lots of embarrassing profiles in music magazines that pegged him as a trust-funded loser-he’s the son of a Boston attorney and a fashion model-who frittered away his chance at stardom by acting like a self-absorbed ass. Secretly, he was simply too Teen Beat beautiful to be taken seriously. And he knew it.
But now, seven years after his last album, Mr. Dando has returned with his first solo outing, Baby I’m Bored (Bar/None Records), and it seems to mark the beginning of his second act. On it, Mr. Dando, now free of booze and dope, appears to have turned his years of druggy self-loathing in the B-list celebrity desert into an emotional exorcism, yielding a surprisingly strong collection of songs-the kind that bespeak a coming of age, even if it is at age 35.
Baby I’m Bored -a wink at that 80’s signifier of adulthood, the “Baby On Board” sign-retains much of the jangle-pop for which Mr. Dando is known. It’s full of summery hooks, wistful melodies and a rusty alt-country warp, with Mr. Dando’s vulnerable vocals backed by a shaky, stripped-down band reminiscent of After the Gold Rush –era Neil Young.
The album, due out April 22, is sweetly confessional, aching with hard-won wisdom from a perennial quest for love and peace of mind-oh, and drugs. On “The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is the Same Thing I Can Live Without,” Mr. Dando admits that he was trapped underneath his own shoe, but “I’ve stepped aside, I’ve stepped aside.”
On “All My Life,” he tries to shine some healing light on his history of “burning full-time,” when he was “filled with hatred / for the time I’ve wasted.
“All my life,” he sings, “I thought I needed all the things I didn’t need at all.”
It’s baldly personal stuff-and saved from potential sappiness by being hitched to immensely catchy melodies. It has the overall effect of transforming Mr. Dando from the callow flapper who did a punk-pop cover of “Mrs. Robinson” to a mature and compelling soul survivor.
Mr. Dando is aided by an entire support group of fellow songwriters and musicians, including former Spacehog vocalist Royston Langdon and members of the indie-rock outfit Calexico. And ironically, the song that best captures Mr. Dando’s new outlook on life was written by Australian folk-popster Ben Lee-another guy who once seemed poised for stardom and then slipped off the map. The song, “Hard Drive,” is like a Zen exercise in observing the profundity of the obvious:
This is the town I’m living in
This is the street I’m walking down
These are the friends I’m visiting
These are the clothes I’m wearing now
This is the house I’m building here
This is the girl I’m marrying
This is the chord I’m strumming now.
The chorus is a plaintive question, set to a mellow, loping rhythm: “Have you ever felt yourself in motion?”
If Dando’s crusty survivor-with-a-heart-of-gold thing sounds like adult-contemporary territory-well, it is and it isn’t. Call it Gen-X adult contemporary, which is a little less pejorative: While it explores over-30 emotional themes and tells stories about, well, adults, it also has a credible hipness and musical sophistication that won’t make people who grew up on Pavement gag.
The model of the kind, of course, is Aimee Mann, whose soundtrack for the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Magnolia -with its bitter Sex in the City themes set to potent hooks and Abbey Road production-singlehandedly invented the genre. So it’s no coincidence that Jon Brion, the Los Angeles–based producer and songwriter behind Ms. Mann’s resurgence, also co-produced Mr. Dando’s album. Mr. Brion is not afraid to let the album shamble and wobble with frayed imperfections, letting a flat snare drum lay flat or a hapless guitar solo wank away. They complement Mr. Dando’s sleepy vocals, which have a laconic, intrinsic sadness that occasionally calls to mind the yearning basso profundo of Bruce Springsteen.
In this case, Mr. Dando’s Nebraska is his own landscape of inner demons. And like Ms. Mann, Mr. Dando explores the desiccated carcasses of old relationships, confronts dying ones and gives bittersweet advice to the suffering-namely himself, in the form of a second-person “you,” as in “Why Do You Do This to Yourself?” In “Stop My Head,” Mr. Dando ends with yet another note to self, lifted by a fantastic pop hook: “Don’t listen to me / listen to yourself.”
After duking it out with himself for 11 songs, Baby I’m Bored ends on a wistful ditty of profound contentment, the kind that comes after a long winter: “I’m in the grass all wine-colored, wine-colored grass / I’m in the grass all wine-colored,” he sings.
It’s incantatory and Whitmanesque-the essence of summer-but above all it aches with a kind of newfound redemption.