Michael Penn: Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947; Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea
Returning to the scene of the crime, where Alfred Hitchock and Ian Fleming joined the Beatles for a love-letter-writing session.
These days, the reissue is not just a method of getting out-of-print music back out there: it's an offensive marketing strategy to reinforce the album to consumers. Big-selling albums by hitmakers like Kanye West are repackaged less than a year after their release, to extend their sales run. Older albums are remastered again and yet again, to cement their status as classics, secure their place in the canon. And sometimes, less popular, equally available albums are reissued to remind listeners of their very existence. It's a political move -- like a candidate running for office issuing a policy statement or calling a press conference just so people remember that he's out there. You take an album, include a few extra elements, put it out there as a new release, and get people to consider it anew.
That seems to be the case with Sony/Legacy's reissue of Michael Penn's 2005 album Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947, its bonus an extra disc featuring a six-song Live at KCRW session from around the same time. Penn put his heart and soul into making an album that stood as one cohesive statement, and it was treated as just another Michael Penn album, decent but nothing earth-shaking. So now it's back out there, even though it never left. Truthfully, this is as much about label politics as anything; Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947 being the one Penn album not released by Sony/BMG, until now. It's being released along with Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea, an example of another music-business ruse: the un-greatest hits album, not a gathering of hits so much as songs, including alternate-versions of several of them to keep the diehard fans hooked. And it's billed as such, as "a Michael Penn collection."
The political aspect of the reissue process seems appropriate for Penn's music, and for Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947 in particular -- the historical setting and typically vague-yet-powerful lyrics make it feel like you're listening to a film noir, or another Hollywood tale of intrigue, with Penn as either the observing journalist/narrator or the fall guy set up by the machinations of power. The way it's framed as a concept album -- the concept post-war America -- makes the album easiest to hear in that way, yet Penn's music often presents a shadowy world. His songs so often relate to immediate, practical concerns -- chiefly matters of the heart -- but do so through clues, allusions, and metaphors which together set up a shadows-and-fog, smoke-and-mirrors tone. His songs are halfway between spy novels and love letters.
This is easily heard within the Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea collection, which is both a comprehensive survey of his music and a listenable, cohesive album in its own right. A shining feature of Penn's songwriting is how the melodies and sentiments are both direct and not. They're exceptionally melodic, but not expectedly so. The tunes are catchy and sharp, but seldom in an easy way. His lone hit single, "No Myth", is an exception in some way, as are less successful singles like "Try" and "Walter Reed". But even the most hooky, singalong tunes, like those, are mysterious in other ways -- think of the lyrics to "No Myth", brilliant in what they suggest more than what they deliver. The line "Looking for some parallel / Can be an endless game" suggests to me how well his lyrics pique interest, while containing the knowledge that nothing's every simple, be it an answer or a chorus.
Portions of his songs read like encyclopedic entries, with place names and other allusions, as if we're reading sections of a history book without context. Others are like scenes from a screenplay, without exposition or climax, that double as riddles. There often seem to be ulterior motives or shady circumstances going on, like in this narrative in "Lucky One: "Things got bad / Things got worse / I got loaded in a hearse". It's funny, ominous, and provocative. His lyrics strike up ideas, relations and experiences in a complicated way. Musically, his songs do the same thing, tapping into pop/rock history in a broad, elusive way. Sometimes it seems like all Michael Penn songs are inversions of the Beatles in some way, yet I can't name a single song that actually sounds like any one particular Beatles song.
And as with so much pop and rock music, the ultimate subject is nearly always love. "Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun" depicts love as an assassin -- we're all "wounded unto death by something called love". Elsewhere, it's holding us back -- in "Try" he sings of a relationship as a court case – or resembles a vortex, impossible to grasp. In "Me Around" and "Long Way Down" we're left with images of the protagonist scrambled by suspicion and jealousy: peering through windows, listening against doors. Everywhere there's rumors, lies, secrets -- but we're caught up in the pursuit of love, like music addicts endlessly searching for the perfect hook.
While Palms and Runes, Tarots and Tea successfully conveys the scope of Penn's music through many of his best songs, Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947 is in many ways his most organized expression of these themes -- with life experiences framed as a series of fragmented spy stories/historical anecdotes. Using something he found at a garage sale as inspiration, Penn pieced together an album-length story of a particular time and place, yet he, typically, tells the story in wisps of smoke, always suggesting and then escaping. And the story itself continually alludes to acting, pretending, name-changing, and cheating: espionage and romance in general.
It begins with the narrator, possibly a student, waiting in a train station in Los Angeles, feeling lost and alone and completely abandoned, ready to go to a hospital ("Walter Reed") and call it a day. Later there's a funeral, a farewell, and later we go further back in time, to when everyone was living it up, betting on success in life and love. Is this one character we're following, or many? Penn is typically elusive, which is exactly how we went him to be. Somehow the emotional and musical impact of his songs is accentuated by what he leaves out, the way stories disappear before our ears. The album ends on a hopeful note -- "things are looking up" -- but this might be the beginning, leading in reverse to tragedy. Or is this the songwriter's hope, a final expression of satisfaction with his creation? Reissuing the album less than two years after its release certainly suggests confidence in it…and that confidence is worthy, for the album and Penn's four others.
Maybe, though, it's not worthwhile to spend too much time pondering the question of why -- whether it's a songwriter's lyric or record-label motivations that are under review. Finding a straight answer can be an endless game, but the pursuit is more enjoyable anyway. What's that other line in "No Myth"? "I'm between the poles and the Equator / Don't send no private investigator to find me please / Lest he speaks Chinese / And can dance like Astaire overseas".