Adam Green has been easy to peg as a complete cynic and prankster, based on his habit of setting crass and nihilistic sentiments, not to mention surrealistic riddles, inside of formalist pop songs of different styles. This time the style doesn’t lend itself to as obvious a clash with the lyrics. He’s teamed up with Binki Shapiro of Little Joy for an album of love-song duets. Again it’s an exercise in a particular style of pop song, but if before he filled the form with naughtiness, now they’re working together to indulge in a light romantic escapade. But at the same time, Green is using the lyrics, all of which he wrote, to dissect love and the love song, to question its essence, its reality, its expectations and assumptions.
In the advance press for the album, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s duets have been evoked, and though musically there’s not that much resemble, Green and Shapiro do try and play off a similar dynamic of beauty and the beast: grizzled masculine voice countered by prettier feminine one. (In a similar way, the album cover and press photos call to mind Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin.) Yet Green is hardly the stereotypical macho man, play as he does at the role, and Shapiro often sings melodies so recognizable as Green’s typical style that it’s hard for those familiar with his past work not to hear his voice within hers.
That dynamic actually plays into, not against, what they’re doing here. The tone of the album is so casual and light, plus familiar to fans of pop music history, that it’s easy to overlook how unexpected the lyrics often are. The first song’s “Here I am / Meet me as before / And more again” is essentially “Reunited (and It Feels So Good)”, or are there in more of a cycle of purgatory? Throughout the album they seem to be rewriting a very familiar topic and form.
They depict love as filled with lies and a set of hollow gestures done in service of another person (“Just to Make Me Feel Good”), or as a set of repetitive actions cloaking frustration. Here love is doing what you don’t want to (“If You Want Me To”) and changing against your will. In “Pleasantries”, love is a way to uncover the ugly truth behind the pleasantries we all walk around exchanging every day. In the prettiest song, “Don’t Ask For More”, Shapiro articulates the way love involves resignation – settling into a blissful ignorance of the way people change. At the same time, the song situates ego into all of that, and how couples push against each other’s individualism. She concludes: “Can’t seem to drag you away from yourself / At any moment we may come undone / Even the world began / Because someone pushed the other one?”
They’re focusing on the pleasure of their voices, either theirs together or hers alone. But it’s also the pleasure of words, of finding different ways to express what’s hidden in all the millions of love songs. And the pleasure of ideas, of saying what doesn’t get said about love. It ultimately presents as bleak a view of life as any of Green’s albums, while also being extremely sweet about it.