All comeback stories are unlikely, but Alejandro Escovedo's is more so than most. Five years ago, he was vomiting blood in a Tempe hospital. Several months ago, he was on stage with Bruce Springsteen, playing the first song on his new album to an audience of 18,000.
The bleak, atmospheric songs on Escovedo's last album, 2006's "The Boxing Mirror," chronicled his recovery from the near-fatal bout with hepatitis C that left him, for a time, too weak to hold a guitar.
"Real Animal," which was released in June, is an altogether friskier, more vibrant beast.
The album, produced by Tony Visconti, best known for his 1970s work with David Bowie, is by some measure the most exuberant of Escovedo's career.
" 'The Boxing Mirror' was an album about death, in a way," said Escovedo, speaking from his Texas home. "This record's really about life. It's about a full life, a life lived with this music, playing it every day for 33 years. That's why it has so much energy."
Long a cult and critical favorite, Escovedo, who will perform today at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, has been playing mid-sized clubs to a core of devoted followers for years. But with "Real Animal," he is hoping to break through to a wider audience.
In the run-up to the album's release, he signed with Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, and replaced his booking agent, which led to a two-week tour with Dave Matthews. Instead of late nights in sweaty clubs, Escovedo has been making small talk with morning radio show hosts, and he recently performed at the Democratic National Convention -- on the same night that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered her speech.
The Springsteen appearance alone has had a noticeable effect. After video of their duet on Escovedo's "Always a Friend" was posted on Springsteen's website, Escovedo said, "everything went up" -- album sales, live attendance, even MySpace hits. (It is now available through iTunes.)
"It was one of those things where you finally get this confirmation from someone you've admired," he said. "I was scared to death, I'll be the first to admit. But it sure was exhilarating too. I'd get letters where people would say they were watching it and they'd break into tears, they were so happy."
After the harrowing, cathartic "Boxing Mirror," Escovedo knew he wanted to make a more "uplifting" record. But the template for "Real Animal" didn't fall into place until he began writing with Chuck Prophet, who shares credit on the album's 13 songs. Escovedo's memories of his life in music served as their raw material. "It was me relaying all these stories, and Chuck and I trying to find the songs within the stories," Escovedo said.
The result is a "musical memoir" stretching back to his childhood in Huntington Beach, where he saw John Lee Hooker and Spirit at clubs like the Golden Bear and the Salty Cellar. "Nuns Song" recalls his tenure in the San Francisco punk quartet he formed as part of making a film about "the worst band in the world," and "Chip n' Tony" pays tribute to the Kinman brothers of country-punk forebears Rank and File, with whom he toured in the 1980s.
On "Real Animal," Escovedo casts himself as a rock 'n' roll survivor. The lyrics are studded with the names of friends who've moved on or passed away. "I feel like the only one left alive," he sings in "Sister Lost Soul," whose twangy guitars are overlaid with church bells and ghostly backing vocals.
"There's a lot of that life, or those years, that sometimes was pretty painful," Escovedo said. "It was pretty hard for a while for me to even talk about. But as a result of having gone through the illness and having the chance to really look at it from a distance, I think it was much easier."
He's been forced to change his lifestyle, but Escovedo hasn't been totally tamed. At a radio programmers' convention in April, Escovedo jabbed at an inattentive audience, sarcastically thanking it for its "polite clapping."
But his rarely seen anger only made the songs stronger, especially "Real as an Animal," a nasty, snarling ode to primal rock inspired by Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Although Escovedo is usually soft-spoken on stage, he recently has taken to prowling it like an angry cat, with only a microphone between him and his prey. Escovedo has never played the frontman before, but during the "Real Animal" sessions, Visconti forced him to put down his guitar while laying down his vocal tracks, and the habit stuck.
"It's totally new, and very scary," Escovedo said. "But I'm kind of digging it now. I remember going to see the Stooges at the Whiskey, and I would never want to be in the front row because you never knew what Iggy was going to do. When you have the chance to do that on your own and you just let go and confront the audience, I think it's a very cool, powerful thing."