Monday, July 20, 2009

"Sunday Blues" / Marshall Crenshaw

When I got home from vacation, a lovely little present was waiting for me -- the new Marshall Crenshaw album Jaggedland. Now at last, when I can listen to my own music without all my family listening in -- it's Marshall Crenshaw time.

As my longtime readers may recall, Marshall Crenshaw lies in a very special circle of my heart -- a fellow Midwesterner, my exact same age, following most of the same musical heroes, he's like my musical doppelganger. I loved his first album (1982's Marshall Crenshaw) but then lost track of him for years; rediscovering Marshall has been one of the great musical joys of the past few years for me. What a revelation it's been to discover that, even as Marshall faded from the public ear, his music just kept on getting better and better -- tenderer, suppler, with crafty grooves and heart-stopping little plunges of emotion. My favorite record of his is probably his 1999 album #447, unless you count 2003's What's In the Bag?; and now here comes Jaggedland to blow them both out of the water.

On first listen, Sunday Blues seems a gently syncopated meditation -- brunch anyone? -- with Marshall's jazzy guitar riffs and a touch of mellow strings lounging around. But just under the surface, it's much more discomfiting. The lyrics meander fretfully, only occasionally stumbling into rhymes -- "I wish I could / Go walking / Walk out of this place / Maybe see a friendly face, but it's / Raining / And raining, I'm / Looking down below from a thirteenth-floor window." There's a brief shadow of suicidal thoughts there, but just a whisper. "The sky is ugly grey / In here or down there / Right now it's bad news either way."

Not much happens in this song. He stands at the window -- I'm guessing a hotel room, on the road -- brooding, watching the rain, feeling cooped up, restless, bitter. (Still, not too bitter -- that finger-snapping beat and the sweetness of his vocals keep things copasetic.) Those stuttering phrases are like fragmented thoughts -- it's the musical equivalent of Cubist art, an effect he repeats in several tracks on the album (no wonder it's called Jaggedland). Nothing much seems to happen -- it's all internal drama. IN A POP SONG.

Well, that's why you gotta pay attention. Just glancingly he mentions in the long second verse, "I tried to call you on the phone"; he doesn't say that's why he's feeling so crappy, but we can read between the lines. In the third verse, he grouses, "I'm on the wrong side of Sunday / Can't get away from dark thoughts today / I've been made blue / Been lied to" -- betrayed by that woman who doesn't answer the phone? Again, he just implies -- we're way beyond Everly Brothers simplicity here.

"But enough's enough," he adds, wearily, "I don't need this stuff, ok?" And just when you'd expect him to vent, instead he does the zen thing: "Regret and rage, just go back underground / Mean old Sunday blues, I've had it with you hanging 'round." The last verse shrugs philosophically, "Everyone now and then has to play and lose / So I'll waste no more time on last year's news." I can just see him putting on his hat (Marshall's trademark hipster fedora) and heading out the door, taking that therapeutic walk anyway, damn the rain. And as he swings the door shut behind him, the wry chuckle of the last line: "'Til the next time around with the Sunday blues." He's been here before; he knows the psychological pattern.

What is this -- adult emotional complexity in a rock & roll song? Yes indeedy, and that's what really gets me. Okay, I also love the shuffling jazziness, the intriguing musical intervals, the arresting chord progressions -- they suit Marshall's yearning voice, that earnest boyish quality that's still there, belying the spiky sentiments he favors. This jazzy sound dovetails seamlessly into the vintage rock & roll bedrock of Marshall's sound. (Remember, this is a guy who got his show-biz start playing John Lennon in Beatlemania, once played Buddy Holly in a movie, and also wrote the title track of the mock rock biopic Walk Hard).

Remembering those peppy retro pop gems of his 1982 debut -- so fresh, so lively, so eager -- I find it astounding that MC has ripened into a true original, with a distinctive sound and with lyrics that resound deeply. This is good stuff, just amazingly good stuff. Why isn't Marshall Crenshaw at the top of every critic's "best of" list?

By all rights, Jaggedland will finally earn Marshall Crenshaw the accolades he deserves. Here's hoping (but hey, at my age, I should know better...)

Sunday Blues sample


The Modesto Kid said...

I don't know Crenshaw's music very much at all; but a couple of weeks ago we saw him when he was playing at Maplewood's annual free-music-in-the-park festival, he was definitely the highlight of the day. I'd be glad to listen to him some more.

Holly A Hughes said...

I heard that was a fun show. Yes, Marshall live is his own best advertisement. It's a pity he doesn't perform more!