“What does it take to make this man a star?” ponders Rolling Stone critical sage David Fricke of Alejandro Escovedo. The notion both humbles Escovedo and makes him chuckle. “Hey, I’d be happy to just make a good living, and be able to make records and go out and tour in a comfortable way, and know that I can support my family and be sure that they’ll be safe and provided for,” he says. But Fricke’s point is still a salient one indeed. Stardom isn’t Escovedo’s goal. At this point in his creative and personal life, it’s not even a factor in his music making equation. But throughout his lauded 14-year solo career, Escovedo’s artistic aspirations have always aimed as high as the stars. And all along, his work has inspired the sort of rapturous critical praise that is unequalled for a contemporary artist who hasn’t (yet) achieved widespread cultural impact and fame. He has consistently earned a virtual music press thesaurus of acclamation and enjoys an ever-expanding audience as devoted as any in rock’n’roll, thanks to the stunning breadth of his musical vision, depth of his emotional expression, and the sheer quality and musicality of his work. Or in short, the artistry of Alejandro Escovedo is as good as contemporary music gets. And his seventh album, The Boxing Mirror, produced by musical master and visionary John Cale, finds Escovedo at his finest yet, exceeding his already remarkable musical achievements. His debut release on Back Porch/Narada Records comes after three trying yet also rewarding years during which Escovedo stared his own death in the face and then struggled and worked to regain his health and continue the creativity that has sustained his soul throughout his adult life. From the chilling opener “Arizona” to the final classicist grace note of “The Boxing Mirror,” it’s an album that implicitly traces Escovedo’s journey from the brink of death to wellness and an enhanced creativity and wisdom. The varied stylistic hallmarks of his previous albums are found in full force alongside new modes, moods and musical variations. With Cale’s able assistance, Escovedo truly raises rock’n’roll to high art and deepens and expands his gift for personal expression with universal impact and appeal. Arriving just a few short years after a time when it was feared that he might never record and perform again, the album is something of a miracle and well as a prime contender for the title of masterpiece. The Boxing Mirror was recorded in Los Angeles in December 2005 with Cale contributing keyboards and guitar alongside Escovedo’s band, a distinguished unit that includes such longtime accompanists as drummer Hector Munoz, cellist Brian Standefer and violinist and singer Susan Voelz (also known for her work as a member of Poi Dog Pondering). New to the group are guitarist Jon Dee Graham, a lauded artist in his own right who played with Escovedo in their 1980s band True Believers, and veteran rock’n’roll bassist Mark Andes, who a teenaged Escovedo used to see in concert playing with Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne. The album also includes lyrical contributions from poet Kim Christoff, who is also Escovedo’s wife. But Escovedo has been also blessed with a richness of experience, a wealth of intrinsic rewards and untold joys and delights over the years, as well enjoying maybe just a bit too much fun along the way. In addition to the high critical esteem earned by all of his albums, his songs have inspired an acclaimed theatrical work, By the Hand of the Father, and a 32-track tribute album, Por Vida, on which his musical friends, fans and even some heroes recorded Escovedo’s compositions to help raise funds for him during his recent time of need. At the dawn of the new century, he was blessed with a new love, poet and college instructor Kim Christoff. The two eventually married and had a daughter, Amala. At the same time, “I was having a really good time playing music and drinking and smoking and living the life.” As Escovedo now admits, he was in deep denial regarding the deadly dangers of continuing the rock’n’roll lifestyle while infected with the Hepatitis C virus. Then in April 2003, during a performance of By the Hand of the Father in Tucson, Arizona, Escovedo fell critically ill from the effects of the disease and was rushed to the emergency room. “I came close to dying in the hospital and didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” he says, his voice still echoing with a chill at the thought. “I wanted to live. But I really didn’t know if I had a chance.” His health crisis resulted in huge medical bills that, without insurance coverage, were well beyond his ability to pay. It also rendered him unable to earn a living by playing his music on tour and appearing in the play. But as soon as the news spread of Escovedo’s illness, friends and fans began to spontaneously send funds to assist in his treatment and support him and his family. His peers and admirers in the music community staged benefit shows in more than a dozen cities across the nation. The Alejandro Escovedo Living & Medical Expense Fund was set up by his manager to receive contributions. Harp magazine ran a half-page ad soliciting donations to the fund without even being asked, and Roche Pharmaceuticals generously provided expensive medication for treating his Hepatitis C through an assistance program. Though Escovedo had sometimes wondered if he had been laboring in the margins of contemporary music, the outpouring of generosity proved that he had deeply touched the souls of those who heard and appreciated his music. The culmination of the benefit effort was Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, a two CD set featuring 31 artists performing his songs, released in the fall of 2004. Some of the featured artists, like John Cale, Ian Hunter, Bob Neuwirth and Ian McLagan, were heroes and longtime inspirations to Escovedo. Others were musical peers: Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Steve Earle, The Jayhawks, Son Volt, Peter Case, The Minus 5, Lenny Kaye and Calexico, to name some but hardly all. Austin friends such as Los Lonely Boys, Charlie Sexton and Jon Dee Graham contributed tracks, as did artists Escovedo had worked and recorded with like Jennifer Warnes, Tres Chicas, Ruben Ramos, Chris Stamey and Rosie Flores. Family members like older sibling Pete Escovedo and Sheila E. — Pete’s superstar daughter and Alejandro’s niece — and younger brothers Javier and Mario (with his band The Dragons) rounded out the critically lauded set. “It was a long climb up from that deep hole,” Escovedo concludes. “I can’t say that I’m fully recovered yet. But I feel so great about everything right now, especially this album.” And with The Boxing Mirror, Alejandro Escovdeo has created what can truly be called the album of his life.