An artists' A to Z, according to the whim of the day.
The Monkees / "I Know What I Know"
The Monkees? Yes, the Monkees. And not just a blast from the past, but a new track from a new album.
Wait -- the Monkees are still recording? Didn't Davy Jones die last year? (Well, he actually died in February 2012, but I get your point.)
This new 2016 album, Good Times, honors the past, with tracks that recycle not only hitherto-released Davy vocals from 1967 but also a 1968 track with the late great Harry Nilsson (more on him to come soon). However, it's also got a bunch of new material, produced by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and featuring such songwriters as Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and Paul Weller (the Jam). If that's not a sign that the Monkees are now officially cool, I don't know what is.
All of which would mean nothing if the album wasn't good. But -- it IS good. And here's the track I keep coming back to.
Now, back in 1967, I was irredeemably a Davy girl. My sister was a Micky Dolenz girl, and we both had a certain fondness for the band goofball, Peter Tork. But I always had a sneaking curiosity about Mike Nesmith, the more so as his country-tinged songs showed up on later albums (once the band had fought to have more of their own stuff on the LPs). As Monkees fan lore would have it, Mike was the one in the band who had the most singer-songwriter chops, as opposed to acting chops (a version of the story that shortchanges former folkie Peter Tork, but whatever).
So in this 2016 incarnation, where Micky, Peter, and Mike all contribute their own distinctive tracks, I'd have expected Mike's songs to be twangy as all get-out.
Instead, we get this poignant love song. It's a perfect example of Music for Grown-Ups, with its clear-eyed declaration of symbiotic need. "I know what I know / And what I know / Is I know nothing / Without you." Subsequent verses simply substitute new verbs -- "I see nothing without you," I have nothing without you," I feel nothing without you" -- could he be more humble?
And the melody is perfectly wedded to those lyrics. "I know what I know" modestly steps down the scale, with "And what I know" climbing only halfway back up the scale, so tentatively. The melody peaks upward as he bares his soul on "I know nothing," followed by the wry diminished chords of "Without you."
It's not a teenage love song, full of inarticulate longing. It's an emptying of ego, a stripped-down statement of need. As the bridge declares, "Alone I am / With waiting heart / Alone I am / A world apart," In a later iteration of the bridge, he goes even more needy: "Someone alone / Always dreams of / The perfect one / Someone in love."
The slightly hoarse edge to Mike's voice, the strained leap to those high notes -- it all works to the song's purpose. It's mostly just a piano and the singer, though in the middle eight, we get the movie-music heartstrings-yank of Adam Schlesinger playing the chamberlin (a pre-Mellotron schmaltz machine).
It's so far from "Hey hey we're the Monkees" -- and I can't think of a better reason to listen to the Monkees in 2016.