Though he manhandles his guitar like a professional wrestler and sings with the voice of a walrus, Austin’s Jon Dee Graham makes music about human frailty and emotional vulnerability. Graham has endured a lot lately: His son was diagnosed with a debilitating disease, and last year, a car accident nearly took his life and left him with chronic pain. None of it, however, has kept him from making one of his finest albums in years. It’s Not As Bad As It Looks (Freedom) resounds with not-going-to-let-the-bastards-get-me determination. The burning opener, “Beautifully Broken (That’s All),” which recounts his recovery, is followed by other astonishing songs: There are master strokes like “Gilead” and “My Lucky Day,” some Blind Willie Johnson channeling in “God’s Gonna Give You What You Need,” and the fierce “La La (La-La-La),” which repeatedly taunts, “How do you like me now?” While the album could use some instrumentation other than guitars, Graham—who likely dreams in power chords—throws himself into his instrument with such passion, pain, and intensity that it’s easy to understand the omission.
From the December 2009 Issue Subscribe