It all came to a halt one Arizona night in 2002. ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO had led an impressive, if messy, rock and roll life, with a résumé that included Rank and File, the True Believers, and a respected solo career. Yet years of ignoring a hepatitis C diagnosis finally caught up to him: Collapsing during a performance, the critically ill singer faced a fight for his life. Austin had always considered Escovedo its best-kept secret, but the ensuing avalanche of support proved otherwise. Now Escovedo is onstage and back in the studio, with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale in the producer’s chair. THE BOXING MIRROR (Back Porch) is a triumph, easily Escovedo’s edgiest work since his True Believers days. Cale’s imprints are everywhere. There’s a claustrophobic compression to the sound; like the best of Cale’s solo work, the musicians constantly press at the seams. Former True Believer Jon Dee Graham grinds it up another notch with his exuberant guitar work. The songs? You’ve heard a couple before (“Sacramento and Polk,” “Break This Time,” both imaginatively redone). “The Ladder” is vintage Escovedo romanticism, but others, like “Dearhead on the Wall”—sawtooth chamber rock set to his wife’s poetry—are real surprises. “Gonna learn how to give/Not to simply get by,” Escovedo sings in “Died a Little Today,” and it’s a theme that keeps recurring. As the album’s title implies, there’s an internal fight going on between the immutable past and the all-too-flexible present, a realization that second chances are rare. Escovedo knows he beat the odds. “You say I’ve lost my way,” he sings in the opener, “but it’s all a dream since Arizona.”