Letting Go of "The Lyrics Guy"
I lost the lyric booklet for this album. I’ve looked everywhere for the thing, at work, at home, in the basement, my car—nothing. Which sucks, especially since I’m on the record as saying (in a way-too-long feature article on this site) that Mark Stewart, the driving force behind Stew and the Negro Problem, is the best songwriter in the United States. I was probably just trying to read the words while listening to it somewhere, left the booklet out, and now I can’t find it when it’s time to write the review.
Which, as I said, sucks. But it’s actually the best thing that could happen for this review. Because now that I don’t have all the words in front of me, I’m actually discovering the record for what it is, or what I think it is, or what it means to me, or something. And I am appreciating it now more than I did when I could cheat with the lyric sheet.
I, tragically, fatally for a reviewer, am a lyrics guy. That’s just the way it’s always been. I feel a little bad about it, a little embarrassed and corny and old-fashioned, but there’s nothing I can do about it at this point. This obsession with words, which is well on its way to ruining my life, is all I have sometimes.
It’s people like me who are drawn to Stew (his “solo” project, quotes necessary because he never goes anywhere without his main partner in crime, singer/instrumentalist Heidi Rodewald), people who seek to discover the world in what we read and what we write and what we hear people say and sing in their songs. If you’re a melody and harmony person—or, God love you, a beat person—above all, Stew’s songs might not get it done for you. Even people whose critical judgments I respect put Stew records down for being too “ho-hum” or too “poppy”. He’s heard this ever since he was a black teenager listening to the Beatles and Love along with his Sly Stone and James Brown, and I’ve heard it ever since I wrote that article.
And Something Deeper Than These Changes isn’t going to change any of his detractor’s minds. Sure, it’s the most melodic set of songs he’s ever done, but it’s also more overtly folky than any of his other records, too: hushed, soft, minimal. “Love Like That” floats along on nothing more than organ and piano and bass, with the smallest tiniest little minute cymbal keeping time; “Kingdom of Pain” is a drum machine and the organ again; I don’t hear anything in “The Sun I Always Wanted” except acoustic guitar and a double-tracked vocal, and a hint of bass maybe as an afterthought. More than ever, this is a record that trades on what Stew has to say, and how he sings it.
Therein lies the problem. Stew is thought of as a songwriter rather than a singer, due to hyperbole from, well, critics like me. If anyone was paying attention, though, Something Deeper Than These Changes would change all of their minds. He just sings the shit out of these songs, killing each one in the way he intends to. “Love Like That” is a song about the holiness and oppression wrapped up in the concept of “family,” and Stew gives it a wistful and paranoid performance, sad and resigned and grateful: “Mother’s love might seem insane / Cause she really knows everything / Too bad it takes so long to see what you been missing / Love like that can’t be measured anyway”.
Over and over, he does what he needs to in order to put the song over. “The Constellation Jeeves” is a very strange Jimmy Webb-like slowdance number, a song that shouldn’t work at all, as there’s no real overt “subject” at all at first. But then the song shifts, and he gets that naughty soul-man voice on to sing the deathless chorus “Just like a lover of Jesus / Will you come unto me?” From there, we get Motown keyboard lines and understated Al Green falsetto squeals of desire and tossed-off lines like “Now you know I had to shake the tree / Cause the apple looked good to me”.
Songs like “Kingdom of Drink”, which is just an excuse to place the attractions of alcoholism right alongside their horrors, or the banjo-scented call-and-response “Mind the Noose and Fare Thee Well”, don’t need a lot of performance, and it is here where Stew is lost in Cutesville; the latter contains such great lines as “Frederick Douglass, hip-hop king” and such awful ones as “Burning Bush and Rockets Blair / Here we go but don’t know where”, and belongs in the camp of Nice Try. And Stew freaks his voice into full-on Fop mode for his part in “The Instrument of Pain”, which is a kind of philosophical-argument duet with Rodewald featuring some more hyper-cleverosity before redeeming itself with its refrain, “Love is not the instrument of pain / It’s your own mind”.
But the rest of the record features some singing that makes you wonder what would happen if Stew was a little less “clever” and a little more trustful of his own mind. And here is where the lack of a lyric sheet helped me. There is a tune here that I was convinced was the saddest and smartest and funniest and most heartbreaking song about homelessness ever, with its haunting refrain of “To be indoors again”—until I realized that it was called “Statue Song”, and that its narrator is, actually, a statue. But that doesn’t change the care and cunning in Stewart’s voice when, as that statue, he sings about how he “hooked up with this hotel maid”, who tells him “You’re no different than most men I’ve been out with, dear friend”. By the end of the song, where this unusual narrator asks us to be thankful for all the comforts we take for granted, I began to realize that I don’t appreciate all the wonderful things in my life, and that if I don’t start to do that I’ll end up like all the men in my family, all too stiff and unforgiving to breathe, all of them statues who stand outside their worlds so they can complain about how they have been forced outside to weather the storms and the pigeon shit, when all anyone else wants is just for them to come in out of the cold and the rain, to be indoors again.
It’s not a song I can listen to very easily. It’s true and it hurts and it resonates.
So when Stew hits you with “Love, love, love, is a way of life” on the next song, or his funny circular storysong about his love-hate affair with his hometown on “L.A. Arteest Café”, or the silly hip-hop lost-love folkpiece “Lazy Emergency” with its amazing lines “Miss Grishkin’s here to fluff and wax your velvet paranoia / ‘Cause you look like that forlorn cat in The Firing Squad by Goya” (the first time that the bonus material on a Stew/Negro Problem disc wasn’t the best thing on the album), it’s hard not to love his hippieness or his humor or his surreality, because his songs have become real songs now, not just settings for his arch intelligence. When I find that lyric booklet, I’ll probably put it back in the little sleeve-deal . . . or maybe I’ll just put it away somewhere where I won’t remember where it is for a while. These songs can handle that.