Happiness for a day or two,
That’s my limit.
I’m a junkie.
How ‘bout you?
—“Happiness”, Macy Gray
How do we define progress in a genre where progress is often looked upon suspiciously?
—Todd Boyd, The New H.N.I.C.
The wonders of Macy Gray are multifarious. By turns ferocious and vulnerable, seductive and schemey, she appears an artist with range and ambition, not to mention a complex emotional history that informs everything she does. And it’s this appearance, so awesome and appealing, that helps this classically trained pianist, former screenwriting student, and single mother of three keep a healthy distance from those who would tell her who she is.
Take just one memorable example: Macy Gray’s stunning few minutes in Training Day (2001). Here she plays an angry explosion of a character, a junkie-mom-dealer’s-girl, her eyes furtive, her fingernails like Halloweenish weapons. Sitting on her own sofa at Ethan Hawke’s gunpoint, she snarls. No way is this scrawny white boy cop going to make her even think of cowering. Gray has talked about playing that character, the weird demands of inhabiting a fictional someone’s skin. But her music—that all-purpose vehicle for self-expression and self-invention—is equally demanding, adventurous and anomalous. She appears to perform variations of herself, again and again.
Her first two albums, On How Life Is (1999) and The Id (2001), offer original roughness alongside recombinant sequences of Aretha, Stevie, and Prince, with occasional bits of Al Green or the Jackson 5, all bursting with funk. While Life broke out the Canton, Ohio native with the perfectly aching single, “I Try”, it also featured other, odder gems, lesser known—the rambunctious “Sexomatic” (“We are the genius of love, / Feel like an xx-rated movie star”) and the resentful-sad-girl’s anthem, “Why Didn’t You Call Me?” Deemed the girl of the minute, with her raspy voice and splendid hair, Gray was invited to sing at Tina Brown’s massively touted Talk magazine coming out party, where she wowed the assembled tuxedoed types and appeared to be on her way to super-pop-stardom, one-way ticket, no stops.
With The Id, she paused, not so much in her inventiveness as in her willingness to bend over backwards to please just everyone. Still, and despite its title, the album didn’t so much expose unknown angles as to rearrange the pieces already in play on Life. And if the second record (released just after 11 September) sold fewer units than the first, it marked a more compelling evolution than numbers might track, showcasing Gray’s signature nerve and energy, twisted up with introspection by turns cagey and heartbreaking.
The exquisite ode to love, “Sweet Baby”, is actually more poignant than celebratory, and other tracks are fiercely audacious. In “My Nutmeg Fantasy” (with Angie Stone and Mos Def), she imagines a romance that might have been, in provocative, vivid images (“Picture if I was understanding / And you were less demanding, / And the only time we scream and shout / Is when we’re making love, babe”) and “Relating to a Psychopath” makes word-pictures to convey just what it feels like to be alone and disappointed (“Hot like hot wings with hot chocolate in hell, / Cold like in my isolation cell / In the winter”).
Gray’s newest album, The Trouble With Being Myself, is at once more of the same and something more, a set of polished, enchantingly newish approaches to her favorite themes, from bad choices (hers and his) and rueful memories to exhilarating anticipations and beguiling fantasies. Titled, she says, in reference to her “relationship with the media”, the album is confidently produced by Gray and executive produced by pop whiz Dallas Austin. Trouble is characterized by swanky sound and much luscious funk, laced thorough with Victor Indrizzo on drums and Justin Meldal-Johnson (or Mike Elizondo on “Screamin’” and Chris Thomas on “Come Together”) on bass.
While many of the tracks look back, with bits of ‘60s moog or classic horn sections, they layer such sounds in fresh ways. The familiar-sounding first single, “She Ain’t Right for You”, is a big fat Macy Gray ballad along the lines of “I Try”, again picturing the pain of loving unrequited: “Thing is right here baby, / And no matter what she say, no matter / What she do, she don’t like u like I do.” (Gray’s performance of this song on the Tonight Show was simply gorgeous.) The album’s first track, “When I See You”, jumps into gear with a J5-ish guitar bounce, then rounds itself into an energetic but also plaintive romp: “Truth is, all I’m doing is missin’ you,” she hits it. “When i see ya, / I’m gonna kiss you all over your face.” And “She Don’t Write Songs About You” offers sumptuous and spacey Wurlitzer funk, a nice balance of programmed and live instrumentation, as she muses on the particular pleasures she can offer as “Macy Gray”: “She’ll give you good head and she’ll make up the bed / But she don’t write songs about you.”
“I don’t like to lose,” she tells AP’s Nekesa Mumbi Moody, “Nobody wants to lose what you’ve got. Even if all you’ve got is a paper bag, you’re not trying to lose that” (19 July 2003). The album considers this question from various angles—loss as instruction and “opportunity”, as well as cultural and political mainstay. The energetic “Happiness” enters with a kind of Crosby, Stills & Nash-y guitar chord and steady cymbal brush, then brings in layers of instrumentation (including violin, synth, and “kids’ choir”) and a witty turntable scratch at the end, to segue to ““Speechless”. Here she slides in Al Green territory, with organ and a sweet, woo-up lilt in her voice: “Oh it’s for sure, / There is love, then there is something more. / I’m hoping the music can express what I feel when you caress.” Even when she feels “speechless”, Gray can apparently say everything she needs.
For “It Ain’t the Money”, with music cowritten by Beck (who also adds vocals) and rap by the charismatic Pharoahe Monch (“After the money, / They lust, sell their souls for the unlimited cash flow / In God we trust, but that’s never in class though, / Enron, Worldcom, CEO assholes / A monopoly to collect whenever they pass go”), Gray starts with throbbing horns and bumps up the beat to launch a social-minded critique not only of the music industry, but also the ludicrous excesses assumed and encouraged by capitalism that makes products of people: “Betcha giving head to a movie star / Betcha gotta llama riding in your car. / Betcha u gotta tv built in your jet skis.”
Other songs bestow larger, smoother sounds, while running similar themes: “Jesus for a Day” has lush strings backing her plaint (“Be. / If I could be Jesus for just a day and have it my way, / If I could be perfect, / Like the light”), and “Things That Made Me Change” offers reflections on loss (her father died last year of cancer): “Sure would like to see you / And visit your big house in the sky. / I wish you didn’t have to leave us, / But since you’re gone, the time sure does fly. / So I don’t get too attached too much anymore, / It’s a different world and I’m a different girl.”
She’s different in a range of intriguing ways, and these emerge throughout the album. Some of her playfully “psycho” self returns, refracted, in “Childhood Memories,” where she fondly remembers a babysitter who boffed her dad and a plumber who had sex with her mom (“Within no time at all, he got / Rid of the water and I / Was grateful till I caught him plunging / My mother”). In this dark but delightfully rendered reminiscence, baby girl kills both interlopers, in a vision as creepy and canny as any summoned by Eminem, indicting unthinking adherence to the nuclear family ideal, spoofing the ways that culturally instilled desire creates havoc: “Grown up now, as you can see,” she sings, “My parents are still happily married, thanks to me.”
She also has good fun on some of the more overtly “serious” tracks, including the last, “Every Now and Then”. An ode “It’s the mood I’m in,” she begins, “It’s how hard it’s been. / The ultimate sin, / Don’t want to commit, / But I think of it every now and then.” Exquisite and complex, the bass line speeding along with Indrizzo’s marvelous drumming, building with piano, organ, and a thick horn section to a whomping climax and an absorbing ebb out. It’s the end, but you can’t hardly wait to begin again.