A really beautiful album that I’ve been completely awestruck by lately is Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle. It’s one of those albums that is overlooked, not only greatly by the general public, but also within Johnson’s career itself. Johnson is an Austin musician that is most thought of as a guitar hero for his tasteful yet often extremely technical playing. He is most famous for his album Ah Via Musicom, an album that won a Grammy and launched three instrumentals into the top 10 for the first time since the 60’s. (That album came out in 1990.) Although I hadn’t listened to much of Johnson’s work before recently, I used to have his most popular album and bop around the house to the instrumental Cliffs of Dover when i was 12. As great as Ah Via Musicom is, its follow up Venus Isle is a truly extraordinary piece of work that is unique even within Johnson’s own career.
Venus Isle is an extremely elegant and regal album. It has a psychedelic otherworldliness that is very dreamlike. What makes it unique in Johnson’s catalog is that it doesn’t shift styles in the same way that his other albums do, at least not as overtly. Some songs bleed into others and the whole album feels like a complete piece. I almost feel like listening to any one track does not do the album justice. The album is also as much about texture as it is about songs or individual parts. Although the guitar playing on it is exceptional, it is often not showy in the way that one thinks of when they think of the term guitar hero. This album also has more vocals than any other Johnson album except for maybe Tones, his debut.
The album sounds like a combination of Prince’s Purple Rain or Jimmy Hendrix’s Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) crossed with the moody likes of the Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine. That description is really only a jumping off point. There are even more styles and moods stirred into the pot, but I think that initial description will give you some idea of the overall feel of the record.
Johnson is often called a perfectionist, and one of the biggest criticisms lobbied at him is that his work is too slick. I think if you were going to judge this record only by rock standards you could maybe make that criticism. Although this album is rooted in rock n roll, it is played with the precision of a jazz musician and almost at times appears to have classical aspirations. Every piece feels perfectly sculpted. If the Rolling Stones created ragged earthy paintings out of blood and dirt, this album is more like a marble sculpture. I think one can hopefully appreciate both kinds of things. If you are open to it, this is a really beautiful thing to behold.
Johnson dedicated the album to his ex-girlfriend who was killed during the making of the record. Although it seems as if this album was well underway when that tragic incident occurred, although I can’t be 100 percent sure of the timeline, there is something about this record that reminds me of an epic poem or symphony that is trying to communicate the beauty of a lost love. Although this album, at the time of its release, was no doubt modern music, and there is even something forward looking about it in the way that it seems like it is trying to communicate a new language, I can’t help but feel that it also seems part of some ancient past.
Johnson’s voice is light and mellow, and it is low enough in the mix that the lyrics are often hard to discern. I find his voice pleasant enough, but it does not alone have a quality that, were it not surrounded by beautiful music, that I would necessarily seek out for itself. I think the way it is used on this record, and on certain other things that he has done, it as another tool used to create emotion in the context of the larger piece. On work this personal I would always want to hear an artist sing their own words than use someone else’s voice. His voice perfectly fits into the larger aesthetics of the piece.
This is the perfect kind of album to put on at sundown and slip away into a dream to. A unique moment in music is created, one that even Johnson never tried to repeat himself. I know that there are those that look for more edge in music that would judge this for being too perfect, too slick, too painterly, but they would be using the wrong metrics. I think nothing is more important then for an artist to create that one emotional moment that is true to themselves, that doesn’t look for any confirmation other than whatever light they have guiding them. I think on this record Johnson achieved that. The record was a commercial failure, but here it is after all those years, not in the least representative of its time or any other, still living on its own terms.
Here is an interesting piece in the Austin Chronicle from 1996 about Johnson just as he was about to release this record: