Johnny Rain sits in a dimly lit room, shrouded in eerie blue lighting that illuminates only his face. His new album, Idol Blue, is available across streaming services, and the creator is holding an impromptu listening session on Instagram Live, celebrating the album’s arrival with the small yet dedicated cult following that has spent the past three years yearning for this very moment. This isn’t a grand release party, complete with extravagant trimmings and copious amounts of free liquor; rather, it’s a somber, spellbinding scene, with the man before the camera absently nodding his head to the beat as virtual hearts and words of adulation pass before his eyes.
There is very little that has been written about Johnny Rain (born John-Anthony Webb), a singer-songwriter and producer who rarely gives interviews and seldom speaks publicly outside of his music. Once upon a time, the clearest avenue into his mind came through his Tumblr page, where he frequently explained song lyrics and answered whatever burning questions were on the minds of his fans. Still, despite his limited presence outside of his feed, Rain’s musical promise has always been undeniable.
On L.O.M. (Lullaby of Machine), an album released independently in 2013, Rain created a chilling ambiance that gripped the listener to the speakers with an icy resolve. Whether it was pounding drums or atmospheric, ethereal production, the multitalented artist manipulated the scene with a swordsman’s touch, even while he was still growing into his own sound. Songs like “Jericho” set a warlike tone with a thunderous calvary of percussion hits, before the towering walls shattered into oblivion at the drop of the chorus.
Two years later, in 2015, Rain delivered his debut studio album, 11, which highlighted an artist with a more refined palette, increasingly secure in his element while simultaneously tackling larger topics. On “A World of 100,” he imagines our global society as a single community afflicted with all the horrors of our news cycle, adding a heightened sense of immediacy to the tragedies taking place at opposite ends of the earth. On “Master of Disguise,” his lyrics are equally captivating, but it’s the instrumentation that takes center stage, exploding into a brazen fireball of energy once Johnny’s said his piece.
Later that same year, he dropped off the compact EP1, a six-song project that honed in on a more electronic sound. “143” adds passionate lyrics over Jamie xx’s gloomy instrumental cut “Just Saying,” while Rain connects the two verses with his own bouncing production on the chorus. A brisk listen-through, EP1 lives in that grim space from start to finish, before James Blake seals it in a burial chamber with his ghostly outro on “Animosity / Dear Xodi.”
Just as it seemed as though Rain was poised to break out, he went dark, logging off his Tumblr and largely disappearing from the public eye. With nary a clue hinting at a reemergence, fans were left to wonder when, if ever, the California native would ever step back into the light, and fulfill the potential that once upon a time attracted the attention of Roc Nation.
Although it was supposed to be released in 2017, Idol Blue, released on July 19, appears to have arrived right on time. From the surging orchestral arrangement that announces his return on opening track “Erösia,” it’s clear listeners are being groomed for the launch of a compelling journey, one that involves dynamic peaks and valleys and an ever-changing soundscape.
On “Girls Don’t Play Fair,” Rain ratchets up the aggression with a grungy bass guitar, adding a punk undertone to his voice until the mood mellows out. “Dontf*ckupmywave / Fruitless” carries a similar rebellious energy, both in the rumbling bassline and in the lyrics he wearily recites above it. Johnny Rain is cold and unforgiving as he rhymes “N*ggas should have fucking played cool / If you did, I probably would have made the same moves / Problem is you probably would have been the same you” before going on to shout out JAY-Z and his management team at Roc Nation.
Throughout the album’s 16 tracks, there’s a sentimental longing for the days of his adolescent past, most noticeably on “Seventeen.” While bemoaning his current situation, Rain turns back the clock to that final year before adulthood, dreaming of the days where his lover was “just a girl trying to be like what she sees,” and he was “just a boy dying to feel like 17.” His words are accentuated by organ chords that tug at heartstrings as the mood suddenly flips into blissful jubilance on the ensuing “High School,” the album’s joyous pinnacle where problems are nonexistent and cares are thrown into the wind. Keeping with that theme, “Bounce” feels like the soundtrack to a Friday night house party after a long week of classes is in the rearview, the energy swelling throughout before the chorus descends into chaos as the strobe lights flicker.
When his production choices are vivid, Johnny Rain is at his best, and on “1000Mi,” he regales his audience around a lonely campfire with roaming guitars and wandering background vocals that evoke the feeling of losing yourself in the wilderness. A few moments later, on the other side of a dreary “Smoke Break,” Rain is bounding above the trees without restraint on “1999,” as booming, tightly-tuned synths propel the song upward. Lyrically, he’s equal parts confrontational and harmonious: “Ain’t nobody tryna get violent, motherfuck yourself with the violation / Peace sign up to the tyrants, some shoot guns we shoot love.”
The album reaches its stirring conclusion on “Oz” as Rain’s vocals ascend the ladder to rejoice after one tumultuous odyssey. A distorted interlude paints a watery picture of the birth of his son, the nurse comforting the baby’s mother as she goes through labor. “Glory to the heavens, I know you care / Glory, I’ll never let you go,” he sings, his voice cracking over solemn piano chords as the baby is born.
There’s no singular song or moment on the tracklist that speaks to the essence of the album; rather, it’s best depicted in the album’s striking artwork. With his back turned and a cape billowing in the wind, a diminutive Johnny Rain looks out over an apocalyptic landscape, with a blazing sky and psychedelic landscape that’s tied to reality only by the makeshift studio setup before him. The majority of Idol Blue dwells in such an otherworldly backdrop, at times racing through the wasteland with adrenaline pumping, while pausing elsewhere to soak in the hypnotizing scenery all around.
From beginning to end, the album holds your attention, making for a cohesive listening experience that proves Rain’s disappearance was a productive one. With his unique vision on display, there’s plenty of reasons to once again buy stock in Johnny Rain, assuming, that is, he chooses to remain at the forefront rather than once again receding into the shadows.