The very first image a listener encounters in the titular opening track of X’s new album “Alphabetland” is a quintessential one: a sidewalk being torn up and covered with freshly poured pavement to obscure an old lover’s initials. That metaphorical perfection ushers in an album that was long in the making, but which finds the Los Angeles band reaching back with feeling all the way back to its musical and poetic roots.
The romantic dysfunction heard in that song is in the group’s DNA; as its fans know well, its co-lead vocalists and principal songwriters Exene Cervenka and John Doe were once married, and have continued to collaborate since their split. In fact, the last album they made as a couple, 1985’s metallic, ironically titled “Ain’t Love Grand,” was also the last time guitarist Billy Zoom worked in the studio with the quartet.
Though Zoom regrouped with Cervenka, Doe and drummer D.J. Bonebrake in 1998 and has played the band’s early songbook with them on stage since, there was no reason to believe that L.A.’s most lionized and durable O.G. punk unit would ever release another album of fresh material. For two decades, they seemed content to roll out favorites from their first five albums, ignoring two later collections in concert. Word had it that one member of the band was X-plicitly opposed to recording new songs.
So hearts leaped last year after the band confirmed that they had cut five new studio tracks with producer Rob Schnapf, noted for his work with Elliott Smith and Beck. What was actually afoot has remained largely a mystery, however. The first two numbers released from the sessions were both familiar to hardcore adherents: “Delta 88,” heard as a 1978 demo on a CD reissue of the 1980 debut album “Los Angeles,” and “Cyrano De Berger’s Back,” first recorded in 1981 by an “all-star” edition of the contemporaneous punk act the Flesh Eaters (which featured Doe and, on marimbas, Bonebrake) and officially released on “See How We Are,” X’s first post-Zoom album, in 1987.
The mystery was finally dispelled on Wednesday with the sudden, unannounced online release of “Alphabetland”; its digital manifestation – 11 tracks, nine of them new songs, six of which were apparently cut earlier this year by Schnapf – will be succeeded in August by LP and CD iterations on Fat Possum Records. The adventurous Mississippi label had previously re-released vinyl versions of X’s first four albums.
Any doubt that X’s original lineup could still bring the fire in the studio — a notion instilled in some by their logy (and Zoom-less) studio farewell of 1993, “Hey Zeus!” — is instantly dispelled by the ecstatic rush of the lead-off title track, which sets the tone for the entire enterprise. The writing is lean and prickly, the high-velocity playing is taut and cranked up, Exene and John’s angular vocal harmonies burn brightly and the writing is focused and biting.
The new record is most reminiscent not of the band’s later major-label records, but instead of their first two albums, “Los Angeles” and its 1981 successor “Wild Gift,” both released by the L.A. independent label Slash Records, an offshoot of the like-named punkzine that gave X its first major print support.
Those records were free of fat and gristle, all muscle and gleaming bone and beating heart; their literate, lyrically intense songs remain the core of the group’s live repertoire to this day. “Alphabetland” remains true to the rough sound of those early albums, but pulls the elements together even tighter: Only one of the performances runs longer than three minutes, and the set’s entire length can be auditioned twice in a hour, with enough time left for a walk down the block and back between spins.
X’s past reverberates in these new tunes, but the group is by no means imprisoned by it. You encounter the band’s enduring themes of a longing for revolt (“Free”), of the war between haves and have-nots (“Water & Wine”), tales of amour fou (“I Gotta Fever”) and social outlawry (“Star Chambered”), plus a lovely, icy memoir of the road (“Angel on the Road”). Dovetailing neatly are the re-recorded songs — “Delta 88 Nightmare,” a recollection of a drunken late-‘70s punk odyssey to Monterey in search of Steinbeck’s hobo ghosts, and “Cyrano De Berger’s Back,” a funkified hat-tip to Rostand’s romance, now completed with a Zoom saxophone solo.
The album concludes with two brief numbers that exert a powerful pull on the heart, and that reflect its status as something like a career summation.
The closer, “All the Time in the World,” is a spoken-word piece recited by Cervenka. This neo-Beat recitation about the weight of the years — “the limitless possibilities of youthful infinity turn into mortality” — will remind historians in the audience that Cervenka and Doe first encountered each other at Beyond Baroque’s poetry workshops in Venice. With Zoom supplying rudimentary jazz piano, the guitar obligato comes courtesy of Robby Krieger, whose late Doors band mate Ray Manzarek produced X’s first four albums.
Echoes of the “Wild Gift” highlight “In This House That I Call Home” are heard in the penultimate track, “Goodbye Year, Goodbye”; like its predecessor, the buzzsawing new track takes in a chaotic, emotionally disjointed party, this one on New Year’s Eve. It’s a melancholy kiss-off, and, given where we sit today, it bears a poignancy its authors could not have anticipated.
One carries away the hope that when the current crisis is over, we will all gather to sing it together in some club on the Strip, maybe the Whisky, as X returns to the stage.