Saturday, April 24, 2010

Red-head Reconciliation

Alexander Theroux, in a rambling, random (and utterly awesome) book ruminating on the Primary Colors, sited that most red heads' color fades over time. I've often wondered if being an odd singer was similar. I have seen the quirks in some of my favorite songwriters fade as I have followed them now for twenty years or so. 

Maybe it gets lonely thinking in patterns that others do not. How many times can you be misunderstood or plainly told that you don't make any sense--especially when you sincerely believe you do? If musicians are to be taken as a model: people like this age and start speaking more simply; dumbing it down; cutting out the 50 cent words; removing the convoluted structures. All this to help people understand them. It may not be a concession. Maybe they have lofty ideas but gain experience to more clearly route our understanding them.

David Byrne was once one of the strangest men with a top-ten hit. Admittedly he got there by toning down some of his proclivities--Once in a Lifetime is more readily accessible than Born Under Punches. On Remain in the Light, Byrne rarely says something is like something. Things just are, and things are apparently fucking weird. On recent albums, his thoughts are often conveyed by comparison, his vision of the world is now one step removed. He has moved from the realm of metaphor to simile.

REM has gone one step further. Somewhere in the mid-90s they traded Disturbance in the Heron House for Everybody Hurts. They've put all their chips on plain speech. It would be wrong to say that in their heyday REM were impenetrable. Even if confusing, the best of the oddballs worked on an level of intimation: their lyrics communicated a concrete sense that, despite an incomprehensible surface, told an intuitive story that was almost more immediate than literal understanding. It struck your gut.

Once upon a time, Robyn Hitchcock had the capacity to be downright creepy. Something has crept up on him though: his once offbeat lyrics that could be about either  about shellfish or sex at or both are now positively mundane. There's no mystery in his phraseology. The singer who once said, "If I were man enough; I would come on your stump" now says, "I feel beautiful because you love me". He had a great capacity to be entertaining and unnerving at one and the same time. He still delivers a good turn of phrase, but he no longer earns double-takes.

If Syd Barrett had lived long enough--I suppose technically he did, but if he had lived as the Syd Barrett long enough--would he have psychedelically mellowed; veered toward simple and immediate communication? Would the man who wrote Gigilo Aunt and Octopus be writing silly love songs Paul McCartney could be proud of? It pains me to say it, but probably so.

This isn't inherently wrong. I am the last person to demand that an artist keep doing things that were relevant to them at 22 when they're now in their 50s--that's inauthentic. Unfortunately I think it takes some time for them to realize the change within themselves. Even once they do,  it is a very public transition. They have to search for a new mode of expression--on the record as it were. It's like watching someone claw their way through an identity crisis, which in and of itself is interesting (if not good music).

Of course when you've had a such a long relationship with their work, it may take you some time to realize when they have arrived at something new, and that where they have arrived is--in fact--good. It is far too easy to be attached to what a musician was, especially when what they meant to you is tied up in your own coming of age. So like the artists themselves the best we can hope to do is to try and grow, recognizing the need for constant development. 

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