Has Jonathan Richman reached the point in his career where the only people who buy his new albums have been fans of his for 20 years? Do new fans go to the old stuff and ignore the new, either stopping back in 1976 with the Modern Lovers’ debut, relying on a compilation to hear selections from his solo work or, at best, cherry-picking a few albums from across his career and stopping there?
I hope not, as he’s still an interesting artist making music of its own style, similar to but different from what he did in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. His most recent LP, 2010’s O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth was fascinating, with a dark, minor-key tone unique for him.
The compilation No Me Quejo De Mi Estrella, released by the German label Munster, skips that LP but collects songs from the three LPs before it—Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild (2008), Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (2004) and Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow (2001)—and adds three tracks from two more recent 7” singles.
The obvious intention of this compilation is to catch listeners up with albums that weren’t that widely heard, and in one case has gone out of print. It serves to remind listeners that Richman is still here, making music. Along the way, it provides a window into the nature of these more recent recordings, the way they don’t just fit the happy-go-lucky troubadour singing goofy songs vibe that Richman may personify to some.
It demonstrates how anguished and introspective his music is, a quality brought forth more overtly since around the time of 1996’s Surrender to Jonathan. This is true even within love songs that are not overtly sad. Listen between the lines of the confident “I Took a Chance on Her”, and there’s a backstory of pain. Listen to the downcast “My Love For Her Ain’t Sad”, and wonder why he would think we’d assume that love would be sad. Hear how giddy he is in “My Baby Love Love Loves Me Now” and also hear him admit that he was praying for her to love him like this, because she wasn’t before.
The album showcases his guitar playing, which alone is a treasure that has its own rough, pretty, timeless qualities. Listen to the brief, gorgeous instrumental “Maybe a Walk Home From Natick High School”, and then witness how ferocious his playing is on “When We Refuse to Suffer (II)”.
The collection shows off his singing, which in some ways has grown more expressive over the years. It shows his international interests, his improved grasp on Spanish (“La Guitarra Flamenca Negra”, “La Fiesta Es Para Todos”, “Con El Merengue”) and the way he integrates musical styles from other cultures in with his own eccentric songwriting style. No Me Quejo De Mi Estrella has tracks which show his interest in his own musical past. He revisits and rewrites the Modern Lovers’ “Old World”. A great cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Here It Is” highlights his interpretive qualities. There are also great examples of the atmospheric qualities of his music (something heightened even further on O Moon). The album has numerous tracks which spotlight the way he embraces roughness and the fondness he has for being out of step with modern times.
That last idea—that Jonathan Richman is an eccentric iconoclast who walks his own path through our modern era—is especially prominent on No Me Quejo De Mi Estrella. Included is his 7”-only track “You Can Have a Cellphone That’s OK But Not Me”, purposeful rough as he declares a preference for the here and now moment (“when I’m on a walk / I’m on a walk / no you can’t call me there”). Both versions of “When We Refuse to Suffer” are included (spread out on Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild but back-to-back here). The songs ruminate even more broadly on our modern era, on the ways humans use medication, television, and other crutches to avoid dealing face-to-face with the harsh realities of being alive. That Richman finds the harsh realities also important and even beautiful has been an underlying theme of his music throughout. Here it’s brought forward in a strident, almost confrontational way.
Those songs might make you think of Richman as a crotchety old man, but his perspective on life and the world is much more complicated and interesting than that. The more you listen to his music, and the more you keep up with each new turn, with each new album, the more you’ll realize and witness that complexity.
// Notes from the Road
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