Folk music, strictly speaking, is a tradition in which the repertory has more importance than the artists who perform it. The songs convey information, history and values; the musicians merely pass the torch one to another over a span of generations. Things got complicated in the mid-twentieth century when the likes of Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie and their acolytes attempted to fuse folk music with political and social issues. The traditional songs were suddenly latent with sub-texts and agendas. At the peak of the ’60s folk revival, some observers sensed the loss of purity in the folk idiom. Out of the neo-folk movement was born the singer-songwriter, a contemporary artist whose internal reactions to the modern world reflect universal sentiments. One of the very best at this is Paul Simon, and his 1973 masterpiece “American Tune” is probably as definitive as any piece in the singer-songwriter oeuvre. “American Tune” was inspired by Simon’s shock and disappointment with Richard Nixon’s landslide presidential re-election in 1972, but the listener gets none of that in the text of the song. Instead, it poetically unveils the misgivings of an everyday urban laborer, fearful that the “American dream” has eluded him forever. The first-person narrative is universal in its application, thus a flawless example of the power at the contemporary singer-songwriter’s disposal.
Annie Lin’s music has been described as “thoughtful pop or FM-friendly folk”, but she is a singer-songwriter in the most naked sense. Kicking Stars is her first full-length exposition. Brandishing only her nylon-stringed guitar, Lin personifies the virtues and inherent difficulties of the genre. Her playing style is a nervous “scratching” at the higher strings — not a perjorative observation. It achieves the right mood for her songs without drawing much attention to itself. She manages a subtle degree of melodicism in pieces that don’t easily lend themselves to melody. And when the warmth of the lower strings emerges intermittently, as in the track “Save the One”, it brings with it an unexpected level of relief and reassurance.
But when the lone instrument plays a subjugated role in the music, it’s essential that the artist carry the songs with either powerful but simple lyrical imagery or compelling singing or both. Moreover, if the subject matter gets too personal, the performance under these circumstances can become unbearable for the listener. The singer-songwriter must draw in her audience without embarrassing them; the songs cannot devolve into a psychiatrist’s couch rant. Fortunately, the bulk of Annie Lin’s material is not based on personal experience. In her press release she states, “I actually take pride in crafting fiction when I write songs — that’s harder for me than spilling blood and guts and writing about things exactly the way they are.” Unless those blood and guts have universality, as in most blues for example, they’re better left in the body. To her credit, Lin spares her listener any late-night phone conversation creepiness. Unfortunately, in more than one place she over-compensates with an of lyrical devices that keeps the listener’s head spinning.
For example, the opening track “Susannah” is a tower of metaphors. We vaguely get the sense of a woman’s discontent with her restless, unsettled lover, but the lyrics overblow the point and turn a simple truth into a cryptic and disaffecting maze. There’s no substitute for straightforwardness; it keeps the artist from sounding pretentious or like something is being covered up. The dizzying lyric of “Susannah” also works against Lin’s vocal performance; the pace of delivery required for this is taxing. When a pure folk singer sounds a modal tone we know it’s by design, but when Lin hits a flat note it’s obviously unintentional.
But the song “This Year” works perfectly. The lyrics string together concrete visuals and fragments that are effectively heart-rending:
“This year — drove to dinner, drove to Dallas
This year — and I was not alone
Goodbye — from the window of a jet plane
Goodbye — from the back of a bus
Goodbye — from this crooked rear-view mirror
Goodbye — from me to us
and I guess I will see you next year . . .”
Lin was born in Taiwan and her native language is Mandarin. An English major in college, she seems — like Vladimir Nabokov — to have fallen in love with the English language and seeks to mold verbal pottery with it. In several instances such as “One Candle”, “Fifty” and the excellent “Odysseus” she is quite successful. But there are other places where a slow-motion review might prove helpful. In short, Annie Lin is both talented and courageous, and though still on the learning curve she’s certainly on the right track as singer-songwriters go. It will be interesting to watch her style and writing develop.