Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Core of the Stars We See

Andrew Wyeth-Helga (American-1970 or after)

Jonathan Richman-Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild (Vapor 2008)

It's always been my assumption, respectfully, that Jonathan Richman was as true a version of himself as he could communicate, in a specifically cartoonish singer style; he is a pedantic, childlike, anachronistic, eccentric, morose and most of all, silly singer, and I'm guessing he's that kind of guy too. There is such idiotic sophistication in his views of everything from roller-coasters to painkillers that one has to wonder if that bristly vignette about Pablo Picasso from his Modern Lovers days wasn't a sub-conscious look at his own inner pixie dust.

So in his fourth decade of consummating a public image, Richman seems to have eased into a working trance not uncommon to enduring artists: he makes music "for himself". His solo records since the demise of the Modern Lovers have often puzzled, and chafed at, his fan base. Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild appears to have broken from that myopia, explicitly upon the prolonged illness and death of his mother.

Richman is still very much the "I'm Straight" character, eschewing drugs and drink, puzzling over the superficial social tics of the group-thinking world, and finding a peculiar-fitting, lonesome contentment in ukulele ditties, sea shanties, calypsos, cowboy ballads, and other such niche song-forms. However irregular he may come off there is an integrity to the uncorrupted path he's taken--which resonates particularly well here.

It makes listening to Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild something of an emotional workout. Unflagging in his standards Richman appears, now more than ever in his career, badly in need of some comforting. The worldly side of the record (one song is sung in French, one in swarthy Spanish, and a Mediterranean lyrical ode to the Dutch colorist, Johannes Vermeer) feels heavy and restless; if grief is the thesis here, there are plenty of strong, if inadvertent points about denial. A look at the liner notes shows it was recorded between San Francisco, Germany and Spain.

Many of these ostensibly autobiographical songs tend to reach back to a formative time in his career--and by proxy his life, for happier sensations. "Time Has Been Going By So Fast" is a lovely, if painful, meditation. While, bled of its cockiness, a reworked "Old World" becomes an exhausted, ironic eulogy. Richman, given time to reflect (and mourn), might not regret casting off the over-idealized past, though his circumstances do want for the salve of it. That losses such as his are inevitable--or to use a phrase he favors, natural, gives strength to his convictions, but do nothing to assuage the ache permeating the music. There's just no short-cut through it.

One critic I read recently criticized the stringent adherence to teetotaling in his songs as heavy-handed and pedantic. It's a fair criticism, even if it misses the deeper point. Richman might have once stood as a kind of Christ-like punk moralizer, but like Johnny Rotten, or to a lesser degree Mark E. Smith, Richman's breed of conservative iconoclasm always read more generational in conviction than personal, and critical without necessarily being prescriptive.

A lot of the record, in fact, fares among the most compelling material Richman has produced in his solo years. "Our Drab Ways" achieves the uncommon feat of imbibing in early-Leonard Cohen's maudlin French-Canadian folk music without receding into its caricature--or worse, cloying tribute. "Here It Is", an actual late period Leonard Cohen composition, is a zen like reckoning of love, whose matter-of-factly chorus Richman captures exquisitely. Finally, the title song, a kind of wayfaring Tahitian love song, whose name alone is a formidable prick of annihilation poetry, can be added with Richman's most iconic and memorable tunes outright.

Jonathan Richman might better be described as a musical exhibitionist than an autobiographer. Over time his audience has absorbed the aura, while the facts of his life linger in mystery. So it makes this something of a mixed blessing. The wound of a man's formidable loss releases its weight in triumphant songs. That they might have come at less a cost--but like he says, it's natural.

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