Though this is a place of business / where they pay in mumbo-jumbo.
— Adam Green, from “Hairy Women”
Adam Green’s solo career sometimes seems like a songwriting experiment, built around the question: how normal and strange can a song be at the same time?
The normalcy is in the songform and instrumentation. With each passing year, Green seems more interested in making music that, in form and style, sounds like it would be played in households everywhere, that would be part of the fabric of everyday life. His 2003 album Friends of Mine used soothing strings in the service of a light, even beautiful atmosphere. 2005’s Gemstones went more in the glitzy Vegas/Branson direction of theatre, evoking at once Tom Jones, the Rat Pack, Neil Diamond, and so many other musicians who your parents loved.
The weirdness in his songs is through the absurdist lyrics Green sings in his dramatic baritone. His lyrics are surreal but not; that is, they don’t seem like nonsense, but also often don’t follow logic, in the way you’d expect songs that sound like these to. His “potty mouth” has been fussed over since his days in the Moldy Peaches, but to summarize his intentions as just to shock would be wrong. That perceived shock value is more like a rebellious naughtiness, tied to a general sense of subversiveness. There’s humor in his absurdism, too, especially in the ways his words fit, or don’t fit, with the music. Imagine a catchy, relaxed love song, playing on the radio. Picture people driving along, singing softly to the melody they find comforting. Then imagine that the love song’s really an ode to smoking crack, or a litany of non-sequitors. That’s the essence of Adam Green’s music.
Jacket Full of Danger, Green’s fourth album, opens with one of those love songs to drugs, “Pay the Toll”. It’s a graceful, string-laden song that ends with the line “it takes two”, as the answer to the musical question, “how many drugs does it take to find something to do?” The song overall is ambiguous, not following one clear narrative path. That’s a hallmark of his songwriting, surprise combined with the notion that no song can be neatly summarized as being “about” such-and-such.
A major part of Green’s absurdist approach seems a reaction to the notion that songs need to be about anything in particular, that the lyrical content defines the purpose. On “Hey Dude” there’s an icon-smackdown line that emphasizes this nonchalance about meaning: “Bob Dylan was a vegetable’s wife / game over hope you had a good life.”
The surprise factor to Green’s songs makes them richer, especially considering how closely tied they are to familiar songforms. And the songforms are increasingly familiar; I sometimes get the feeling that Green could keep taking different styles and genres of songs and framing them within his own distinct worldview, from now to infinity.
Jacket Full of Danger‘s cover has Green surrounded by little cartoon animals, including a turtle reaching into the cup he’s holding and a bluebird sitting on his shoulder, wearing a top hat. And many of the album’s songs do possess the soft, playful feeling of a Burl Ives song or a children’s folk song. That feeling is accentuated by the string section from Friends of Mine, which returns here, with an extra violin. The Jane Scarpantoni-arranged strings perfectly complement Green’s tunes at every step, helping deliver that lighter-than-air tone that they’re aiming for. Songs like “Party Line”, “Animal Dreams” and “Jolly Good” exemplify this approach, while aptly demonstrating the freshness and oddity of Green’s lyric-writing. A cover of Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow”, performed in this same vein, glides perfectly into the album, suggesting for Green a separate career as a song interpreter.
At the same time that Green has perfected the easy-listening, lazy-day ballad on Jacket Full of Danger, he’s also taken the theatrical, showbiz style of Gemstones to the next level. Much of the album has a sense of high drama to it, though still-playful. Sometimes it’s in his delivery — interjecting a ‘hey’ or a wink to the audience — and other times it’s in the songs having a narrative base about them, as on “Hollywood Bowl” and “Novotel”.
But then other times he plays everything to the hilt, particularly when the style he’s going for is a combination of Elvis on stage in Vegas and Jim Morrison or Robert Plant sliding around the stage in leather pants. “Nat King Cole” leans toward the former, “White Women” towards the latter, with an absolute over-the-top cock rock demeanor crashing in, Green singing in his best tough-guy voice, “you know I wanna bone you / I wanna make a hole in you.” It’s hilarious but almost too much of joke, as it shifts from that balance between musical straightness and lyrical absurdity, in favor of camp. The same goes too for the monk-like chants in the background of “C-Birds”, which feel a bit much. Then again, over-the-top melodrama is definitely a part of the commercial radio landscape, so maybe this sort of hamhandedness should be viewed as a key step in Green’s taking all song styles and submitting them to his whims.
Adam Green – Nat King Cole