For 25-plus years now, Jonathan Richman has been expressing love through his songs. He’s in love with people, places and things, with smells, sights and actions, and the feeling you get from certain combinations of these. Jonathan has his own sense of what beauty is; he’s sung about the beauty in a chewing gum wrapper, and in the way people dance when they’re not trying to attract attention or show off. In the title song of his new album, Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow, he expresses his attraction for a person who has a similarly humble, non-showy individuality. He admires both her down-to-earth personality (“she don’t act cool, she’s not no femme fatale”) and the fact that she shares his interest in under-celebrated beauty. “She delights in the faded colors of night, just like I do”, he sings.
On the surface, the fact that Jonathan’s latest album opens with a love song might not seem remarkable. Yet the song has a giddy tone about it which was all but missing from much of his last two albums, Surrender to Jonathan and I’m So Confused. On both of those albums Jonathan wore sadness, loneliness and confusion on his sleeve as openly as he usually displays joy and wonder. His dealing with romantic hardships in life, particularly the dissolution of his marriage, came out in his music, as he sang about feeling more alone than ever, trying to figure out what went wrong with his perfect love.
Far from turning Jonathan into Morrissey or another forever-blue pop singer, the awareness of the difficulties of love, and therefore of life, made his musical portraits of love even more resonant, as they carried with them not only his typical awe at life but also a keen familiarity with the flipside of happiness. Where the love songs on Surrender to Jonathan mostly dealt with a loss of love, and those on I’m So Confused were cries for love, on Her Mystery Not Of High Heels and Eye Shadow he’s back to celebrating love, though with more depth and sensitivity than ever.
Songs like “Couples Must Fight”, an admission that conflict is a natural thing, and “My Love For Her Ain’t Sad”, seem to spring from hardship but are affirmations of the power of real love. “I Took a Chance on Her” recasts the message of his classic song “Affection” as a personal testimonial to going out a limb for love, while songs like “Me and Her Got a Good Thing Goin’ Baby” and the absolutely gorgeous ballad “Tonight” embody the feelings of utter joy that love can bring.
The positivity carries through into the songs that don’t deal directly with romantic love. This album especially displays Jonathan’s love for the feeling certain places can give you. “Springtime in New York” is a gentle stroll through the title moment, while the instrumentals “Maybe a Walk Home from Natrick High School” and “Leaves on the Sidewalk after the Rain” concisely capture atmospheres and their accompanying feelings with stylish, pretty guitar playing. There’s also a newly recorded version of “Give Paris One More Chance”, a live favorite that he originally recorded for his 1983 album Jonathan Sings!. The version here has even more energy than the original, giving extra power both to the song’s portrait of Paris and to its message of keeping yourself open to new experiences.
With a subtle lushness and clarity in recording quality carried over from his last album, the Ric Ocasek-produced I’m So Confused, Her Mystery… captures Jonathan’s music as well as just about any of his albums. The album ends with four songs sung in Spanish, including a Spanish version of another staple of his recent live shows, “Vampire Girl” (here “Vampiresa Mujer”). While in part a mini-sequel to his 1994 all-Spanish album Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar!, these songs are significant in that most of them are not translated versions of old songs but seem to be songs he has written in Spanish. What’s also magical about them, besides the fact that they show Jonathan’s increasing comfort in singing in another language, is the way that they deliver unmistakable emotions even to those of us not fluent enough to understand very many of the words.
Whether he’s singing in Spanish or in English, or not singing at all, Jonathan Richman consistently uses music to deliver heartfelt messages with a sense of fun, humor, creativity and pure honesty. The inner cover art for the CD has a drawing of various musical instruments, with the caption, “OK. Now you fall in love with somethin’ over ‘dere”. This music is all about falling in love: with music, with each other, with the world, and with life’s magic.
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// Notes from the Road
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