Try to imagine Mose Allison stoned and trapped in a swamp with a chorus of mistaken Baptist harmonies. Do you remember Dr. John’s first album? It was really underground stuff: smoky and aquatic, a sort of voodoo-funk. His second album, Babylon, has some of the mystery and charm of the first, but on the whole it’s disappointing. It’s not at all together; it seems to fall apart inside your ear.
What’s wrong is the relationship between the lyrics and the music. The music itself is still Generally Weird — lots of electronic effects and distant, unthinkable rhythms. But the music is also vague and centerless. None of the musicians are credited on the jacket, and with reason. None of them are there. Except for some mediocre guitar on “Lonesome Guitar Strangler,” none of the musicians can be heard. The music just floats in the background; it’s really a sound-environment, a sustained mood. The songs are definitely songs — with beginnings, middles and ends, but they still don’t stand up as individual pieces. For one thing, Dr. John’s singing is not melodic — instead, it’s a sort of meandering chant. The sound is sinister and fascinating at first, but eventually it becomes tiresome. A few of the songs have interesting parts — “Lonesome Guitar Strangler” has funny lyrics and funky imitations of Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery. “Twilight Zone,” the longest piece on the album, is a spaced science-fiction ballad with visionary lyrics: “Martians kidnap the First Family, they gonna demand New York City for ransom money. We gonna outsmart ’em, leave a note for ’em to read — the best they can get is Milwaukee….”
The album really stumbles on the words. There are too many of them and the music (what there is of it) gets smothered by their weight. The lyrics are long, involved raps; they demand attention, while the music doesn’t. The effect is that of literature chanted to jazz and a chorus of demented angels. The literature is somewhat lacking.
Dr. John was much the better when his songs didn’t even try to make sense. After all, what the hell is Gris-Gris on the first album? Who cares? The lyrics on Babylon come on heavy, but they’re actually ordinary, too thin to sustain the mood that the music seems to imply. It would be interesting to hear Dr. John try this sort of thing with better lyrics — maybe a middle-period Dylan song, or a chunk of William Burroughs’ more scabrous fantasies, or even some Henry Miller. Could it be that Dr. John is actually a Ph.D.?