[21 February 2007]
Musicians have often looked to the movies for inspiration. The characters, plots, settings, and actors have served as the stimuli for many a great song—not to mention Hollywood itself. But it’s still a shock to hear the film Million Dollar Baby used bluntly as a metaphor in Richard Swift’s tune with the same name. “I wish I were dead most of the time”, he croons as he offers wry, touching psychological details about a man lost in a relationship. It may seem bold to compare one’s emotional pain with someone’s intense physical agonies, but the plaintive way in which he delivers the lines and his serene acoustic guitar strumming moderate the risk. “But I don’t really mean it”, Swift confesses as he continues. He’s just using an extreme example as a way of getting noticed.
Swift’s clever and insightful lyrics immediately grab those who pay attention. He throws his lines out there like a fisherman to hook you into the music. He knows when to annunciate and reveal gradations of meaning, and when to let the sound of the words push the rhythms. Sometimes Swift does both things at the same time. “You’re a plane crash / With a pipe dream / Ruby Tuesday / With a broke wing / And please don’t cry / Like buildings in America”, he sings as the words’ sense and sensibility collide. Or perhaps collide is a bad term to use when referring to a song called “Buildings in America”, but I can’t be the only listener to find a resonance of the World Trade Center attack in that phrase. As with “Million Dollar Baby”, Swift knows how to go for the jugular by way of REALLY PAINFUL allusions. And like capital letters mixed in a field of regular text, they get noticed.
It’s so easy to be overlooked. When Swift chants about “The Opening Band”—and who is more overlooked in our musical community than the opening act no one paid to see—you know he’s been there. Except the opening band of Swift’s song is John the Baptist. Yeah, that one whose “cousin Christ / He was strange, but he was nice”. It’s hard to be remembered when one is in such company. When Swift does appear to sing literally about himself, as on “Artist & Repertoire”, which features a character addressed as Mr. Swift, he takes an odd strategy. He turns the tale of being an independent artist into some kind of freakish ‘60s cartoon image of the record industry—the star-making machinery. He uses the guise of honesty as a pretense of why he’s not more popular. The moral, as he well knows, is that he would rather make the music he’s making than create jingles for a living. He’s not really complaining. He’s just making things larger than life for effect.
And Swift’s got a soft heart for the others who have been neglected. He croons a lovely (or should I say luv-ley, as a working class Brit might) tune on “Kisses for the Misses”. The Music Hall instrumentation mixed with pop could come right out of a classic Kinks record, as the Minnesota native Swift tenderly offers his consolation to an older woman with tear and a smile. The Kinks aren’t the only Brits evoked by the Midwesterner. Echoes of the Beatles circa 1968 abound on the melodies and songcraft worked into the presentation, such as the “Lady Madonna”-style piano that anchors “The Songs of National Freedom”. Swift wears these musical references on his sleeve, as if to say that he belongs in the company of the Beatles and such. His ambition is commendable as well as ostentatious. What artist in any field wouldn’t want to be the new Beatles and transform the world? Swift consistently expresses grand ambitions and great feelings, which should be applauded.
My favorite example occurs on the opening lines of “Ballad of You Know Who”. Swift plays a solo piano like he’s Billy Joel in a cocktail club. He slings the words like he’s pouring a highball. “I said to Mary / I hope you die / May God forgive me / Or at least will try”, Swift intones. No bull, just the facts. I wish you were dead. I know I should feel bad about this, but I don’t. Not yet, anyway. Sorry Lord. She hurt me bad and deserves to die. The music begins to swell in a waltz tune—I think—surely it’s some sort of upbeat ¾ dance step. It feels good to let the feelings out. Swift finds pleasure in the absurdity of it. That’s why he named his album Dressed Up for the Letdown. There’s always something worth celebrating, even when that something isn’t a good thing.