Saturday, April 13, 2013

"O. K." / Michael Penn

Another song I was saving for Waltz Week, but life is conspiring against me on that front, and with Graham Parker and the Rumour heading back into town -- well, it all connects. On my end, at least.

So who is Michael Penn?  He's Aimee Mann's husband, he's Sean Penn's brother, he's Eileen Ryan's son, but get over all of that, will ya?  He's simply a wonderful singer-songwriter who has never gotten the attention he deserves. You may say you haven't heard his work, but listen to the supremely catchy chorus of 1989's "No Myth" and you'll realize you have. (And if you've seen the Paul Thomas Anderson film Boogie Nights, you've heard even more, since he did the film's score.) All the insiders, the people in the know, dig his talent, but the world at large seems to be blissfully unaware. And I'd like to change that.

What gets me most of all is the simplicity of this song. Penn is a supremely intelligent songwriter -- just listen to his lyrics -- but the mark of true intelligence is that you know when to pare things back. The acoustic arrangement, the minimal studio intervention -- it's just a guy and his electric piano, a guitarist across the room, trying to resuscitate an endangered relationship. 

"Baby calm down,," he begins, gingerly, coaxingly. "Baby come back down to the ground." Already we know that he's the stablizer in this relationship, as he begs, "Let me hold you, / Let me hold this moment a spell."  I love how he interposes a pregnant pause between each line, with just a tiny winsome curl of guitar slipped in as he inches tentatively forward, walking on eggshells.

The chorus is really the meat of this song, swelling in volume and repeated three times, with minor word changes: "There's really not a lot of options open / For another kind of aftermath. You're hoping / That there's something else that you can do to / Make it come true / Make it perfect, / Make it O.K." Notice how those long lines circle anxiously around a tight cluster of notes, getting tangled in his syntax, until the melody rises on "Make it come true" and the key changes to major, like a wave breaking on a beach. From there on, everything dissolves and relaxes into simple phrases and short lines, shifting down the scale to rest.

I love how you see him talking her down here. It's a delicate evolution, from strenuous yearning ("make it come true") to performance anxiety ("make it perfect") to restful acceptance ("make it O.K."). A lesser songwriter would have done it the other way, promising his gal that he could work wonders. And when you think about it, it's a funny sort of comfort he's offering her: He's telling her that she has no options, that she can't fix things, and he can't either. For all we know, this is their final break-up moment. But sung in that sweet, slightly husky tenor, this chorus is calming, soothing, and consoling as all get-out.    

Now that she's off the ledge, he widens his camera angle to give us some context. This whole album (Mr. Hollywood, Jr.) is very Los Angeles, and the scene he paints in verse two is pure L.A.: "Light the marquees, / Santa Anas twist through the trees" Then he narrows in on an oddly domestic detail of laundry hung out to dry: "While the line swings, / Putting all your light things with his." That last line perplexed me until I started to think of a couple doing their laundry together in a laundromat, and then it made perfect sense. All those dramatic events -- the klieg-lit movie premiere, the wild winds -- pair up with the mundane domesticity of doing laundry. Because this is the heart of making a relationship work: getting the day-to-day stuff right.

That waltz tempo, too -- that's a sneaky choice for this song. There's something romantic and yet comforting about the 3/4 lilt, even as Penn plays against it with syncopation and oddly enjambed sentence breaks. It's not a simple-minded waltz, but it's not a thrusting rocker, either. The key shifts, the tempo shifts, are all artful negotiations. You get the feeling that this guy has had to coax his partner down before, and he gets better at it every time.

And I'm sitting here listening, yearning to be so comforted. I actually feel endorphins release when he hits that last phrase. Making it O.K. isn't a compromise, isn't a sell-out -- no way, not the way Michael Penn sells it in this song. By the time the chorus lands there, it feels like a haven of peace. In a rock song. Bravo, Mr. Penn.

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