By Request is a thrilling jukebox collection, more rarified that typical covers album, and a profound response tragedy.
Though barely perceptible in the music itself, A.J. Croce’s By Request arrives with an undercurrent of tragedy. Following the sudden death of his wife in 2018, Croce wasn’t quite ready to face the pressure of writing all-new material; instead, he sought solace in some of his favorite songs through the years, tapping into a personal canon wide enough to accommodate Tom Waits, the Beach Boys, and Sam Cooke. He ended up reviving his own long-gestating idea of an all-covers album, using other people’s words and melodies as a catalyst for abandon and catharsis. The resulting album sounds at once familiar, bracing, and wonderfully ragged. It’s crucial to note that By Request was recorded before the pandemic, with Croce banging away at the piano in a tiny room, singing and playing in live takes with his regular touring band; adherence to social distancing guidelines would have made this kind of intimate, sweaty kineticism all but impossible.
By Request bears a passing resemblance to Paul McCartney’s Run Devil Run, another example of a rock and roller using a covers collection as an excuse to kick up a ruckus even while also processing the loss of a spouse. But McCartney hinted at his intentions with that record through a number of songs about loneliness and isolation. Croce does occasionally tip his hand — he slows the album’s breakneck pace long enough to acknowledge that “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and ends it by protesting that there “Ain’t No Justice” — but the dominant mode of By Request is pure joy. The songs arrive in a blur of pounded keys, loose horn arrangements, and Croce’s signature howl. You wouldn’t necessarily classify any of these performances as reinventions, but neither could you call them rote; they’re just too loud, heartfelt, and visceral for that, especially when Croce and his bandmates lean into limber funk, which they do most convincingly on Allen Toussaint’s “Brickyard Blues” and Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing.” There’s also a barnstorming version of Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby,” a fuzz-drenched reading of the Faces’ “Stay with Me,” and — providing another brief respite from the upbeat — a woozy performance of Waits’s “San Diego Serenade.” There’s never a dull moment here, and it all adds up to something more rarified than your typical covers collection. By Request is a thrilling little jukebox record that just happens to be born of tragedy, which means it has a double purpose: as testament to music’s power to sustain — and to redeem.
Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 2.