John Doe hasn't completely shed his past. No matter how rootsy or burly he makes his records, the erstwhile X frontman is followed around by remnants of his former band. Whether it's enlisting familiar-sounding female backing singers to do the job once filled by Exene Cervenka or occasionally letting his punk susceptibility show, Doe carries around a lot of baggage. On his third solo album, Freedom Is ... (which is credited to the John Doe Thing), he unloads some of the weight, freeing himself somewhat from the shackles.
Too bad, then, that Freedom Is ... isn't nearly as grand as anything X recorded on its first four albums. It's often stifling, frequently tedious, and just not very interesting. The songs are sharper here than they were on 1995's hulking Kissingsohard; they're also less adventurous. This is about as close to the mainstream Doe is probably ever going to get. It's a slickly produced work, expertly executed by L.A.-based hired hands, yet it feels depressingly detached. And it's the very solid nature of Freedom Is ... that's to blame. Part of X's allure was the ragged glory it applied to its music. The professionalism that anchors this album also disables it from really taking off. When Doe actually makes a connection -- "Catch Me" and "Sueltame," particularly -- it's because his songwriting is at its smartest, even if the songs themselves aren't really that captivating.