There may not be a more joyful record released in 2014 than Going Back Home—which may be a bit of an odd thing to say about an album that started with a death sentence. When Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he would have been forgiven for holing up somewhere to record a moody reflection on his own mortality, something like the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin recordings or Time Out of Mind—fuck it, he would have been forgiven for just heading to the beach to ride things out—but of course, Johnson is the very embodiment of a working musician, so instead of doing anything quite so morose or somber, he headed to the studio intent on cutting a fast-and-loose set of rock and blues, working with his studio band and simply blazing through as many rock and roll tunes as they could in the span of a few days. Roger Daltrey of The Who was recruited to sing, and the resulting album is one that hits all the right notes—combining a few new tunes with a number of Dr. Feelgood warhorses and a righteous, rip-roaring take on Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Our Your Window,” most of the songs whizzing by in less than three minutes, the entire set just hitting half an hour, not one moment that isn’t pumped full of visceral, gut-punch rock and roll.
To say that Johnson and his band sound like they’re enlivened—having the time of their lives—may be surprising but is inarguable based on the evidence here; the album may not quite have the kinetic energy of prime Feelgood albums, but it does have plenty of rock and roll swagger that’s pitched somewhere between the careening beat of 50s R&B, the anarchy of punk, and the macho strut of electric blues, particularly the McKinley Morganfield variety; not for nothing is Going Back Home released on Chess. The most surprising thing may be Daltrey, who sounds every bit as alive and as overjoyed as Johnson does, more than earning his credit as a marquee collaborator. Here he gets to let loose with material that’s bold and ballsy, full of piss and venom; in other words, it’s pretty far removed from the kinds of self-consciously arty lyrics that Pete Townshend tends to give him, and while Daltrey doesn’t try to hit all the same notes he did circa Who’s Next, he does tear into these songs with a gruff ferocity seldom heard from him, at least not recently. Going Back Home is a gas from start to finish, and while it doesn’t tackle death or finality head-on in its lyrics, in its own way it faces mortality with true grit: After all, what are we to call a joyous, careening piece of music like this if not a celebration of life, and a protest of death?