Waiting to Say Welcome Home
478 · 25 March 04
Rick Springfield: Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance
Belle is indignant. It starts as curiosity, modulates rapidly into incredulity, and thence into borderline outrage. I can hear her downstairs, complaining to the cat. The cat has opted to remain neutral. Or, possibly, the cat is also a Rick Springfield fan, but after Belle's reaction to my admission, has decided not to incur another outburst of disbelief.
In Belle's Eighties, Rick Springfield was Evil. I suspect he was Evil in a lot of kids' Eighties, especially the ones in which Good was Black Flag and Hüsker Dü. Liking a soap-opera star's corporate pop is not a condition for which you can just take two Grant Harts and hope to recover by morning. At the time, to be clear, I would have agreed with her. Maybe Huey Lewis and Hall & Oates would have been further down my own ladder of hell, but only by a rung or two. Belle professes surprise that Rick was not actually in Hall & Oates.
And no, Rick Springfield doesn't really sound that different now than then. At best, he sounds like then roughly extrapolated to now. I play Belle some of my favorite bits of this record, and it doesn't seem to do much to alleviate her horror. I had already mentioned liking him before she asked me to marry her, so technically I think I am guilty of no relationship negligence, but maybe I didn't realize how automatically she would assume I was joking. Well, I guess we both knew that merging lives would be tricky, and that you hit these unnerving revelations when you least expect them. We will regroup, and see if it is possible to continue.
I will avoid suggesting any Rick Springfield songs for the wedding soundtrack.
But it's true, I am a Rick Springfield fan. I'm aware that this is not widely considered to be cool. Given that I have repeatedly admitted to adoring Big Country, Roxette, Fiona, Helloween, Meat Loaf and Shania Twain, I thought my lack of musical cool was fairly well established, but if it needed this one final blow, then finally I can relax. I am a Rick Springfield fan. I don't much care whether those that love me the most approve, so I certainly don't care what strangers think. If you cannot accept that, act as you must. I'm not going to try to change your mind, except to point out that I'm having a lot more fun listening than you're having cringing.
It doesn't sound like Rick plans to try to change your mind, either. There are ways in which this album is a reaction to his own public past, but he could have tried to play them so as to ride his own backlash, and he did not. On the front cover, he's leaning against a wall in a sleeveless shirt, his hair tousled. He could have taken a new name, or hired Butch Vig or Youth, or gone back to Australia in search of aboriginal folk roots. On the back cover, he's slouching in his own red-velvet bedroom tableau. He could have fought expectations to the death, and he did not.
Instead, he has just stubbornly made another deliriously wonderful mainstream rock record. To appreciate this, of course, you have to believe that "wonderful" and "mainstream" do not exclude each other. You have to believe that some of the things we invented in the Eighties are immortal, and that one of the valid definitions of "rock" involves bubblegum pop in which the guitars are just a little too loud. Maybe you have to agree that "Jessie's Girl" is classic beyond irony.
But if you can do all those things, maybe you are ready. SDAA isn't long in running time, by CD-era standards, but Rick crams seventeen sub-four-minute songs into its forty-nine minutes, and to me they separate, musically, into two interwoven layers. About half the songs belong to the first one, the foundation, at once structural and atmospheric. "Perfect" crunches the album underway on blustery guitar snarl and the same husky howl in which Rick has always sung. "I'll Make You Happy" churns, keeningly, like the Stone Temple Pilots melted into a Fine Young Cannibals mold. "God Gave You to Everyone" lurches and preens like a flock of Godzillas line-dancing. The slashing "Idontwantanythingfromyou" and the pounding "Jesus Saves" both sound like T.M.Revolution cursorily remixing old Sammy Hagar songs, but "Shoot Your Guru" is a short and elegantly simple acoustic-guitar flourish. "Alien Virus" is drippy throwaway blues, and "My Depression" sounds like a mock-reggae remake of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire", but "Open My Eyes" is a sighing vocal collage. "Wasted" has quiet sections and loud, but ties them together by carrying the same rhythm across the arrangement divisions, and ends up feeling more monostructural than its waveforms. "Angels of the Disappeared" makes it most of the way through on acoustic guitar and emotion, only scattering in a few piano notes and children's voices towards the end. If the whole album were as raw as its rawest moments, maybe this could have been Rick's image-dissonant answer to Maria McKee's Life Is Sweet. If it were all as pretty as its prettiest, maybe he could have tried to leapfrog his own reputation. The oscillation, it seems to me, is his rejection of both ideas at once, and defense of his rights to both experiment and continuity.
The second layer, for me, are the anthems. One of the immortally great ideas we had in the Eighties was that glorious pop hooks can sparkle above surging rock noise, and Rick understands this as well as anybody ever has. The pop hooks can be synthesizer pings, acoustic-guitar arpeggios, backing-vocal aahs or even just the melody. The noise is almost always guitars. "Jessie's Girl" was as elemental an example of this as anything, and twenty-four years of perspective later every detail is more emphatically itself, the drum-programming drawn more taut, the chorus guitars fuzzed darker, the siren hook brighter. The jumps between roar and whisper are sharper and more conscious, and why did we ever think Nirvana invented that? Rick has heard the same records the rest of us share, and if we lost "Jessie's Girl" I can easily imagine reconstructing a new version, like "Will I?" here, out of Garbage's pastel menace and Too Much Joy's fond snap and Tommy Keene's epic melancholy. "Beautiful You", too, leans on stop-start dynamics, but weaves the choruses into Squeeze/Crowded House classicism spiked with twinges of Prince's arch impishness. "Eden" grafts together synth-string pomp, scritchy guitar counter-rhythm and chain-gang choral cadences. "Invisible Girl" channels Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson into the clipped verses, but the choruses are a yearning blur of Bryan Adams and Def Leppard and "Jessie's Girl" itself, undercut only by restlessly rattly drumming. "Every Night I Wake Up Screaming" could be the cathartic prog-metal punk band Fates Warning and Everclear never merged into. "Your Psychopathic Mother" crosses "Hotel California" with Van Halen, and if it were titled after a different line of the chorus it could easily be the third part of a trilogy with Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now" and Van Halen's "Right Now".
And I could happily listen to nothing more than those sounds. This album is bracing and angry and warm and spectral and nervous and redemptive, all of those thing swirling in chords and cymbals, never more than a note away from joy. Rick Springfield sings the way Bruce Willis acts, I guess (and maybe vice versa), and you're well within your rights to despise the affect. I like Meat Loaf and Rod Stewart and Melissa Etheridge, myself, and can't abide Bruce Springsteen or Bryan Adams or Darius Rucker, but the emotive mannerisms are abundantly similar, and if you dismiss the entire tradition, arguably you are excluding yourself from the stylistic center of rock music. People sing this way because it goes with overdriven I-IV-V guitars and steadily pounded 4/4 drums, because the noises set themselves to obvious emotions, because we want so desperately to feel strongly about something that we will settle for feeling strongly about nothing. Maybe my brain accepts that Belle recoils, and even understands why, but my heartbeat does not. This music seems too basic to me. How could I hate it without the rest of my world unraveling?
But somehow people manage. In theory, I might be able to convince Belle that this album is actually no worse than mediocre in her aesthetic system, and that the ostensible vehemence of her hatred is a posture motivated by factors that shouldn't really apply. In practice, the cat probably has the right idea. Belle is never going to love these songs like I do, and the distinctions between antipathy and ambivalence aren't important or useful. The only contention that could be productive is that this album has depth she has not detected, and that would be the worst possible irrelevant cliché about a record so unapologetically devoted to its own surfaces. All I can really do is let it go. In our shared lives we will hold some symbols together and each keep some for ourselves. If we could see inside of each other, I'm quite sure we'd discover internal truths far more inexplicable than these random affections for music. But we fall in love with our real hearts, not the ones lodged inside our chests.
The galling irony, though, is that this album actually does have unexpected depths. The old Rick was a lyricist of necessity, not inspiration, and "Jessie's Girl", which was plaintive but hardly clever, was as much as you could expect from him on a good day. Over the years, though, he seemed to learn to write some words down on paper ahead of time, instead of just improvising standard-issue rock couplets while playing the guitar parts, which made a lot of difference. By Karma, the album before this, I think he'd reached the point where he could start from an idea and produce a text that relates a story that expresses that idea, which is more than a lot of musicians ever learn to do, including many of the Good ones. SDAA is better still. If you still think Rick Springfield is Evil, his words won't change your mind, but if you think you're resisting empty temptation, you're at least wrong about the emptiness.
The shock-denial-anger-acceptance progression of the title suggests a methodical tour of the cycle. This would probably be a bad idea. But you don't write a lot of songs while in shock, and denial often isn't self-aware, so it shouldn't be too surprising that the balance shifts towards anger and acceptance. I am surprised, however, by how pervasively these songs either originate in rage or culminate in it. We wouldn't be playing any of these at our wedding even if we both loved them. "Perfect", winking through an anthology of rock clichés, only sets the context. "I'll Make You Happy" mocks both the narrator's own claim and the addressee's presumption. "Will I?", far better than most of its individual lines in isolation, pushes towards acceptance, but can't resist naming the offense. "God Gave You to Everyone" saws through relationship excuses. The refrains of "Idontwantanythingfromyou" pretend to have disengaged, but "I don't hate you" would have been more convincing if it didn't come after "Everything you gave to me you went and gave away / To anybody else with a dick". "Jesus Saves" is a scorched catalog of belated wisdom, in no way devout ("Jesus saves white trash"). The weird strains in the delivery of the ostensibly earnest "Beautiful You" turn out to betray its bitter clarity about her sweeping uglinesses, and "Wasted" steps back and bemoans what she could have been, both for him and herself. Little of this would be poetry by itself, but one of the great things music can do is peel a line like "We had the power and we had control, / But we blew it" off the page and invest it with wearily tardy regret.
"Alien Virus" rings like throwaway nonsense, but could serve as a bemused hypothesis to answer Joe Jackson's old question about pretty women and gorillas. "Eden" offers explicit, whole-hearted hope, for once, but "The only one I want is you" hangs unanswered. "Invisible Girl" finally owns up, maybe, to how neither he nor Jessie ever really saw Jessie's girlfriend as more than a prize. "Angels of the Disappeared" (the album's sole departure from implicit first- and second-person intimacy) is a case for heartfelt simplicity, an uncluttered prayer for the missing and a promise that they will be welcomed home, whether on Earth or thereafter. "My Depression" is a frank 3:01 sprint-autobiography, and "Your Psychopathic Mother" is an even more bracing family evisceration. But there is hope in the juxtaposition of damaged souls, however faint. "Everything looks better with my eyes closed", moans "Every Night I Wake Up Screaming", but then the album ends with the fade-out mantra "Open my eyes to you", starting over.
But even starting over isn't acceptance, exactly. These stories have vaulted from one cycle's anger into the surrender that sets up the next shock, and it's not clear whether their narrator has learned that "I'll make you happy" is the problem with "All I want is you". If all you think you want is each other, you will only start discovering yourselves after you find each other, and if you think you have fallen in love with someone who has no idea what else they want yet, you'll both probably be wrong soon. Belle and I want a lot of things. Some of our dreams we share, some we will learn to. Some of each other's we won't ever share, a few we won't even understand. These are our real hearts, after all, built to love everything we ever found or haven't yet. We aren't trying to start over, just to continue together. Some nights we continue together apart, but headphones are not defeat. And if we welcome each other back, when we take them off, like a few short hours in incomprehensible joys were a trial, then we have only to let ourselves be right.