A Hundred Love Letters and Some of Them True
183 · 30 July 98
Patty Griffin: Flaming Red
There are moments, my hand hovering over the Play button, a new album poised under the beam, my heart waiting for the first note of music to beat again, when I think "This can't be right". It can't be right to expect so much, to shift so much of my identity out of my nervous system into the stereo's wires that I almost need a remote control to move my finger to operate the remote control to move my finger to operate the. I'm sure these strangers, whose music must stagger under their own emotional burdens, don't need the additional weight of mine. I'm sure the first thing a therapist would tell me, or a priest, is that meaningful salvation can't, of its very nature, come in somebody else's chorus. Whatever I'm looking for in these songs, I'm probably closer to it if I pull the disc out, flip it over, and peer at the reflection in the playing surface. But I've plotted this scene out in my mind, already, and my call-and-response defense is that the music is a mirror, in its own way, and the self I hear bouncing back off my speakers is far closer to truth than what happen to be the contours of my face. I've learned this line so well it sounds like I believe it, even to me, but still, every once in a while, it seems insane: surely the ability to let a random record drill your life hollow isn't an evolutionary advantage, it's an argument for Prozac. But the idea that you find your true self by stripping away your dementia is as obtuse as thinking that you find the true painting by scraping away all the misleading paint. "I can understand / Why you want a better man", I can hear Peter Holsapple singing in my head, "But why do you want to make him out of me?" And so my finger somehow presses Play, and the music starts, and my heart starts, and I give myself over to whatever ecstasy or gloom I've invited in. And I want, with a terrifying intensity, Patty Griffin's Flaming Red to be one of the ecstasies. I said her first album, 1996's Living With Ghosts, was the best album of pure folk songwriting made during my lifetime, and I said she was the best new artist that year, and I don't care whether those claims seem to have any commercial prescience, but I do care, desperately, whether not I have understood myself correctly by making them. I want to love this record to redeem my obsession, and by extension my obsessiveness, and by extension every other conceivable quality.
And I can love it, or at least parts of it, if I squeeze off enough of the blood supply to my brain to temporarily forget what else I know. The garish title rant is unpleasant, but it's also short, and it leads to the comforting "One Big Love", all warm guitars and dreamy vocal processing. I kind of wish the guitar squall of "Change" had stayed in whatever Robbie Robertson song it came from, but there's enough warped relationship logic in "He buys you a new dress / Because you make him ashamed for you, / And he'd like you to look your best" to overlook it. "Goodbye" is a reverent Emmylou Harris pastiche, producer Jay Joyce doing his best Daniel Lanois impersonation and Patty slipping off the ends of words with almost enough eeriness. The muted industrial kick-drum pulse of "Carry Me" rises into chorus acrobatics with earnest old-U2 commitment. "Christina" could be the Blue Nile after a summer in Nashville melts their icy reserve. The libidinous clatter of "Wiggley Fingers" makes me wince, but the strangled guitar roar of "Blue Sky" is pure and magnificent, and the song seems nearly as elemental, to me, as BT and Tori Amos' plural variation on the same title. "Big Daddy" sounds like a stray Lisa Germano song that ended up on this album due to a mastering error, and the smoky period-piece "Go Now" sounds like whatever Everything But the Girl grew up listening to, but "Mary", with the spirit of Emmylou Harris suddenly materializing into her actual person, is timelessly restrained and haunting, and could be the title track if Mary Chapin Carpenter ever wants to make another record like Come On Come On. "Peter Pan", the atmospheric concluding dirge, sounds like the first product of a new rule that, for efficiency's sake, every album is required to include one song pre-converted to sound like a This Mortal Coil/Hope Blister cover of itself. And the closest I get to the rapture I came for, close enough to feel the wax of the wings start to run rivulets down the back of my shoulders, is "Tony", a harrowing, anthemic requiem for an introvert's suicide, like Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket" remade for terror instead of resolve.
But I can only fight off what I know for so long. Even as "Tony" is hitting my favorite moment on the entire album, when the narrator, trying to set up the diorama of herself, the boy, their high-school class and the rest of the universe, says "When I wasn't too busy feeling lonely / I stared over his shoulder at a map of the world", I feel an ocean of remorse welling up behind the desolate pretense that I'm enjoying this. This is a fine record, serviceable in the way that a hundred pulsing, routine albums have been since Jagged Little Pill, and all of us who don't detest the form on principle can probably pick a dozen of them we like and leave the rest for somebody else. If Patty Griffin were a soap actress, that might well be enough. But she's not, and this isn't a hesitant media-crossover debut, it's the follow-up to what I consider one of the rawest, most arresting, most human albums of the decade. The irony could hardly be any more overpowering: Living With Ghosts practically came packaged, like a bonus EP taped to the box, with the story about how A&M signed Patty after hearing her demos, and put her in a studio and made a standard major-label rock record, and then listened to it and realized that the demos were a million times better, and so released them instead; but what on earth is Flaming Red if not exactly the mediocre studio rock album everybody was congratulating themselves about not releasing the first time around? It doesn't take more than thirty seconds of Living With Ghosts again for Flaming Red to crumble, for me. Throw away the genre experiments, and everything left is choked in noises it doesn't need. "Tony", my favorite, is catchy and empathetic, but I peel off the production, in my imagination, and hear it with just Patty and her guitar, and it's almost unbearably devastating, an achievement on a completely different plane. Actually, I don't have to imagine, I heard Patty perform it live, back in February, in one of those performances I expect to walk out of and find the city in rubble, and I worried then, when she said she'd be back in the summer with a full band. I can understand why someone would want to make a rock album, but why would you want to make it out of Patty Griffin? Watching her on the stage, though, this tiny woman, dwarfed by her guitar, driving an auditorium full of people back into their chairs, refusing to turn her amps down to accommodate their folk preconceptions, I thought perhaps she could pull it off, tame rock and make an album as much more bracing than Living With Ghosts as it was louder. I wish I thought that's what this is. I wish everything Flaming Red adds to Living With Ghosts didn't seem like another layer of milky plexiglas over the one thing I wanted to see most clearly, and touch. Maybe you'll think differently, and if you do you'll probably be happier than me, but from my vantage point, the war between Patty Griffin and rock has been won by rock. Even the lyrics seem to me to have been run over with a rock-cliché steamroller, enough times that I can't be sure I can even see where the telling observations used to be any more. I don't find this album literally unlistenable, the way I do Mark Eitzel's West or Beth Nielsen Chapman's You Hold the Key, but it enters my roll of colossal failures of artistic self-awareness all the same, and I will keep it on my shelf only in the hope that Patty will make more albums, not like this, and I will hold them up to their predecessor and know that she and I, somehow, both survived.
Kylie Minogue: Impossible Princess
Besides, if you want a big-production pop album from a former actress, there are plenty to choose from. Natalie Imbruglia's Left of the Middle didn't do anything for me (and the title is an ill-advised setup for the one-word review "Barely."), but Kylie Minogue's Impossible Princess has two songs co-written by the Manic Street Preachers, so I had to buy it for MSP completism, and I'm pleasantly surprised to find that I'm still listening to it long after I expected to have committed it to the trivia archive. The two MSP songs don't have asterisks by them on the back cover or anything, but you won't need to examine the credits to identify them: "Some Kind of Bliss" has James Dean Bradfield's unmistakable guitar, Sean Moore's shuffling drums, and a string-and-brass-buoyed melody like Everything Must Go was a shy admission that they intend to simultaneously honor and dispel Richey James' bleak legacy by learning to construct the biggest, shiniest rock songs since Bach got his hands on the "Ode to Joy"; "I Don't Need Anyone" is even more definitively theirs, "Beat Surrender" drum rush and Bacharach-esque flutes notwithstanding, and Kylie sings it with so many of Bradfield's mannerisms that she sounds like a clever vocoder trick has turned his voice into a girl's. The lyrics, too, can be part of nothing but the ongoing psychic reconstruction begun by "A Design for Life": "'Cause every day is all there is / In my some kind of bliss", goes the first one, an addict's reformation mantra; "I don't need anyone, except for someone that I don't know", explains the second, capturing perfectly, for me, the interdependence of loneliness and self-reliance.
Elsewhere, Impossible Princess is predictably both scattered and likely to date quickly, but if your reflexes are good there's no reason it can't be fun. "Too Far" is nervous and weird, Kylie slithering through the muttered verses in a meter-defying rush, raindrop piano and sawing strings washing over a jittery drum-and-bass rhythm track, the song subsiding to ambient rustle before snapping back into focus, as if anticipating the remixers and wanting to provide them with a complete palette. "Cowboy Style", with its Celtic fiddle reels, could be what you'd get if Zoë took over for Geri in the Spice Girls (an idea that briefly seems like genius to me, especially when I picture the Zoë doll kicking the rest of the dolls' asses in twenty million ten-year-old girls' lavender bedrooms). "Did It Again" sounds a bit like Jesus Jones without the sampler chatter, to me, and the crisp programmed drum track could go straight into a time capsule as the state of the studio art circa the Millennium. Synthesizers percolate gracefully through "Breathe", and I hear faint traces of Abra Moore and Lida Husik. "Say Hey", one of Kylie's two solo songwriting credits, is her Björk homage. "Drunk" is macabre techno. "Limbo" is what EMF might have sounded like with a real singer. And "Dreams", from which the album title is excerpted ("These are the dreams of an impossible princess"), seems to me like the sort of thing you might arrive at by attempting to emulate Madonna without having inhaled quite enough LA smog for her synthesis of doppelgänger aesthetic anonymity and brazen celebrity fetishism to seem reconcilable, or maybe just not having spent enough time in a country where princesses are so routinely manufactured that it makes no sense to call one "impossible". Am I succumbing to Anglophilia and coincidence, or does something glimmering in this album really make me think that a society which still ratifies fairy tales, institutionally, engenders fantasies with a little more magic than we can extract from Powerball?
Emm Gryner: Public
A good case could be made, it seems to me, for the idea that Impossible Princess, as a whole, encapsulates the sound and production idioms of 1998 in much the same way that Jagged Little Pill reflected the state of 1995. If I were actually filling a time capsule, however, and had room only for a single album, I don't think I'd pick either of those. If listeners a thousand years from now care about our music, at all, it won't be fame or obscurity they're interested in, it will be our general aesthetic. Jagged Little Pill and Impossible Princess exist too much in relation to their context to do a good job of explaining it. What the capsule really needs is an album that doesn't quote the mainstream, or defy it, but rather takes it completely seriously, for its own inherent artistic virtues, not its commercial potential, and thus expresses, passionately, the truths everybody else is busy only paraphrasing in order to challenge. As tempting as it would be to pick something innovative, it's normal they'll want to know about. They'll want Don Henley's Building the Perfect Beast for 1984, for example, not Laurie Anderson's Mister Heartbreak; Patty Smyth's Never Enough for 1987, not Jane Siberry's The Walking. The closer you are to your subject, though, the harder it is to see, and if it were my awesome responsibility to pick something to stand for 1998, I'd probably need to deliberate until about 2003.
It's quite possible, though, that I'd never come up with anything more seamlessly, impeccably appropriate than Public, the major-label debut by twenty-three-year-old Toronto songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emm Gryner, the latest beneficiary of whatever the Canadians were putting in the water in the late Seventies to make all the girls grow up to be singers. I don't know what your tolerance is for albums in the vein of Sarah McLachlan (but less intricate), Paula Cole (but less strident), Jewel (but less elfin) or Chantal Kreviazuk (but maybe a little less restrained). I buy them like candy, but I also tend to go through them like candy. I'm not sure there's a rationale, other than simple taste, for why some, like Chantal's Under These Rocks and Stones and Emm's Public, seem instantly captivating to me, while others, like Tara McLean, Dayna Manning and Rebekah, make me smile twice and then are gone from my life. Sometimes I find that I've had the album a day and I already know half the songs by heart, and sometimes I never do learn them. In Emm's case, I've latched onto the fuzzy, swaying "Hello Aquarius" (though imagine my disappointment to find out it wasn't, as I thought before I looked at the booklet, a song about the Greek philosopher Heraclitus); the sultry, rustling "Wisdom Bus"; the quiet, Marry Me Jane-like piano-and-voice lullaby "Acid"; the surging, plaintive, "One of Us"-ish "July"; and the sentimental, sweeping string backing of "This Mad". The frayed guitars and compressed vocals of "89 Days of Alcatraz", even better, wrap around each other like drowsy leopard cubs, as if nobody has explained the panic in the lyrics to them, or else it's just too blissfully warm here in the sun to worry about it. And the burbling, ebullient "Summerlong", best of all, down-comforter guitar buzz and a drum track borrowed from a Roxette demo, twirls around in my head with such pristine pop grace that for a moment I can't think why all songs don't sound like this. The lyrics hint at crises with para-Zen koans they never quite explicate: "The president thinks I'll never get there; / Betty's glad she's got her husband back", "I wrote 'Would you drink the sea, / If yelling has dried up your language by this time?'", "How famous do I have to be to see you again?", "Tell me how unworthy I seemed when you got thinking about it", and "My love carved his name in me, / Carefully but full of might" ("might" as in force, or as in possibility?). Warne Livesey's production is textbook Nineties, acoustic and electric instruments blended together as if they long ago stopped belonging to different phyla, elements drifting into and out of focus like you're swimming through them, as if songs are more like worlds than pictures. I have dozens of albums deduced from the same principles as this one, but next to none in which the deductions are worked out as diligently as they are here. One record will always wildly oversimplify even the most coherent age, but this one, at least, represents an age I could convince myself I've inhabited. No walls are breached, I admit, no fires started. But would you hand down to your children a perfect secret garden, or a burning house?