X – Under the Big Black Sun

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

My not-very-well developed theory is that the more X moved away from straight punk, the better they got. Wisely, they moved backwards towards roots music, which was consistent with Billy Zoom’s history in Gene Vincent’s band and John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s studious obsession with Americana and blue-collar stories. Unlike the Blasters, though, X were punk at their core and they never called attention to their influences or sound; I never got the sense they wanted to be rewarded or were trying to teach you something. They simply were.

What I Think of This Album

Arguably, the best X album, this is seriously dark and despairing, informed as it is by the death-by-drunk-driver of Cervenka’s sister two years earlier.

“The Hungry Wolf” is appropriately titled, and not just because this is actually a song about wolves (at least nominally); untamed and uncowed, Doe stalks around DJ Bonebrake’s pounding toms and Zoom’s riffage, none of it sounding anything like punk. Zoom gets an album credit for “wolf howls,” which is by itself a sign of how this band’s palette has expanded (actually, his credits for saxophone and clarinet are probably more relevant in that respect). A more rockabilly sound presents itself on “Motel Room In My Bed,” another classic Cervenka/Doe duet, full of yearning and frustration. The specter of Mireille Cervenka haunts the slightly disturbing “Riding With Mary,” which I don’t much care for, but it’s undeniably powerful. There is a ‘50’s high school prom feel to “Come Back to Me,” but I find Cervenka’s vocal annoying here; this is yet another song about her sister. Much better is the title track, with an excellent riff from Zoom, a modified Bo Diddley beat, and a fantastic performance from Cervenka (her way around “you can put him in fish pond” is worth the price of the album), with the occasional harmony from Doe.

Cervenka shines again on “Because I Do,” wailing impressively (“I am drunk over you”) while Zoom shoots lightning bolts from his guitar. Zoom and Bonebrake carry the neutrino sound of “Blue Spark.” The sprightly, Latin-esque “Dancing with Tears In My Eyes” seems like a colorful cover until you realize Cervenka is singing about her sister. Zoom gets his chance on the sax on the freeway-burning “Real Child of Hell.” The intro call-and-response of “How I (Learned My Lesson)” is all you need to hear to go all in on this desperate, straining rocker. The album ends on the depressing “The Have Nots,” moving fully into roots rock territory and ending with an impressively long list of taverns, like some fucking Kerouac fever dream; this is the spiritual older cousin to the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular.” Ray Manzarek (the Doors) once again produced this album, and plays a nice keyboard on the single version of “Riding With Mary” added on a bonus track on the reissue.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Everybody asks me how I’m doing / I’m doing everything alone”

Release Date

July, 1982

The Cover Art

I like the comic book style art, and the color scheme and solitary imagery well evoke the tone of the music. I don’t like the stylized X, which should be much starker and simpler. The font for the album title is wrong and too large, but the blue works.

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