Wall of Voodoo might well have been little more than a blip on the New Wave radar of the late ’70s and early ’80s if it hadn’t been for the hypnotic menace of frontman Stan Ridgway. With the Voodoos and in his early solo work, Ridgway’s delivered his darkly twisted and cinematically detailed word plays out of the side of his mouth with a distinctive vocal edge and the blackest sense of humor imaginable
Although Ridgway had always been a creative chameleon, he made a bold musical statement with 1996’s Black Diamond, an album that established the fact that Ridgway had absorbed many influences and wasn’t the least bit interested in merely parroting them. His subsequent work ran the gamut from dark Pop songs with a filmic quality to weirdly ambient soundscapes to actual film scores.
Ridgway’s latest solo album, Neon Mirage, was forged in the furnace of personal tragedy; he lost his father and uncle while recording the album, and violinist Amy Farris, then a part of producer Dave Alvin’s Guilty Women, took her own life in the midst of contributing to the Neon Mirage sessions. Whether by direct inspiration or intuitive prescience, Ridgway’s work on Neon Mirage draws on some of his earliest influences, particularly the Marty Robbins and Hank Williams albums that populated his father’s record collection.
But even as Ridgway explores his inner desert balladeer on “Like a Wanderin’ Star,” “This Town Called Fate” and “Halfway There,” the songs are always steeped in his typical storytelling intricacy and dark melodic appeal, from the Morphine-touched Jazz bleat of “Turn a Blind Eye” to his brilliant spin on Bob Dylan’s “Lenny Bruce” to the vintage Ridgway anti-war lope of “Flag Up On a Pole” and the slinky, kinky noirish detective-theme Blues of “Scavenger Hunt.”
Ridgway’s work is always passionate and completely compelling and Neon Mirage is no exception, but Farris’ tragic suicide, after years of struggling with the tyranny of depression, provides an even more poignant tint to the album, as her final violin performances haunt the album in the best possible way. Neon Mirage is Stan Ridgway at his quixotic best, telling jagged tales of modern life gone wrong with a casual urgency and a novelist’s eye for detail, all set to a soundtrack that soaks up light in a beautiful darkness like polished ebony.