In the wrong hands, the blues are a quick trip to Cliché City, a place where there’s no lyrical or musical problem that can’t be solved in the exact same way as thousands of musicians before him or her have done. In the right hands, it helps them tap into something elemental, as is the case with Johnny Sansone’s new album, The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too. In recent years, it seemed like his creativity found its best outlet through idea-oriented, narrative roots rock, but this album is about intensity.
Producer Anders Osborne creates space for Sansone’s voice and harmonica by foregoing a bass guitar, instead letting his own distorted guitar or Stanton Moore’s tub-like drums nod to that part of the sonic spectrum. The results are lean, hard and haunted, defined by Sansone’s barking, preaching vocals and his overdriven harmonica, which rips and shreds whenever it takes center stage. On the instrumental “Corn Whiskey,” his harp has the electric, aggressive attack of a guitar in the midst of a feedback frenzy.
Sansone’s narrative impulses aren’t entirely behind him. The title track’s the best story, but it still is alive with menace as he follows the song’s title in the chorus with “Better find the Lord / before I find you.” Otherwise, lyrics set moods or establish directions not to work through an idea as much as to work a feeling out of his system. Since the imagery’s bleak (“Down,” “Sinking Ship,” “Where’s Your Heart”), it’s probably for the best that he get this stuff out—for himself and certainly for us.