PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Richard Swift: Dressed Up for the Letdown

What artist in any field wouldn’t want to be the new Beatles and transform the world? Swift consistently expresses grand ambitions and great feelings, which should be applauded.

Richard Swift

Dressed Up for the Letdown

Label: Secretly Canadian
US Release Date: 2007-02-20
UK Release Date: Available as import

Musicians have often looked to the movies for inspiration. The characters, plots, settings, and actors have served as the stimuli for many a great song -- not to mention Hollywood itself. But it's still a shock to hear the film Million Dollar Baby used bluntly as a metaphor in Richard Swift's tune with the same name. "I wish I were dead most of the time", he croons as he offers wry, touching psychological details about a man lost in a relationship. It may seem bold to compare one's emotional pain with someone's intense physical agonies, but the plaintive way in which he delivers the lines and his serene acoustic guitar strumming moderate the risk. "But I don't really mean it", Swift confesses as he continues. He's just using an extreme example as a way of getting noticed.

Swift's clever and insightful lyrics immediately grab those who pay attention. He throws his lines out there like a fisherman to hook you into the music. He knows when to annunciate and reveal gradations of meaning, and when to let the sound of the words push the rhythms. Sometimes Swift does both things at the same time. "You're a plane crash / With a pipe dream / Ruby Tuesday / With a broke wing / And please don't cry / Like buildings in America", he sings as the words' sense and sensibility collide. Or perhaps collide is a bad term to use when referring to a song called "Buildings in America", but I can't be the only listener to find a resonance of the World Trade Center attack in that phrase. As with "Million Dollar Baby", Swift knows how to go for the jugular by way of REALLY PAINFUL allusions. And like capital letters mixed in a field of regular text, they get noticed.

It's so easy to be overlooked. When Swift chants about "The Opening Band" -- and who is more overlooked in our musical community than the opening act no one paid to see -- you know he's been there. Except the opening band of Swift's song is John the Baptist. Yeah, that one whose "cousin Christ / He was strange, but he was nice". It's hard to be remembered when one is in such company. When Swift does appear to sing literally about himself, as on "Artist & Repertoire", which features a character addressed as Mr. Swift, he takes an odd strategy. He turns the tale of being an independent artist into some kind of freakish '60s cartoon image of the record industry -- the star-making machinery. He uses the guise of honesty as a pretense of why he's not more popular. The moral, as he well knows, is that he would rather make the music he's making than create jingles for a living. He's not really complaining. He's just making things larger than life for effect.

And Swift's got a soft heart for the others who have been neglected. He croons a lovely (or should I say luv-ley, as a working class Brit might) tune on "Kisses for the Misses". The Music Hall instrumentation mixed with pop could come right out of a classic Kinks record, as the Minnesota native Swift tenderly offers his consolation to an older woman with tear and a smile. The Kinks aren't the only Brits evoked by the Midwesterner. Echoes of the Beatles circa 1968 abound on the melodies and songcraft worked into the presentation, such as the "Lady Madonna"-style piano that anchors "The Songs of National Freedom". Swift wears these musical references on his sleeve, as if to say that he belongs in the company of the Beatles and such. His ambition is commendable as well as ostentatious. What artist in any field wouldn't want to be the new Beatles and transform the world? Swift consistently expresses grand ambitions and great feelings, which should be applauded.

My favorite example occurs on the opening lines of "Ballad of You Know Who". Swift plays a solo piano like he's Billy Joel in a cocktail club. He slings the words like he's pouring a highball. "I said to Mary / I hope you die / May God forgive me / Or at least will try", Swift intones. No bull, just the facts. I wish you were dead. I know I should feel bad about this, but I don't. Not yet, anyway. Sorry Lord. She hurt me bad and deserves to die. The music begins to swell in a waltz tune -- I think -- surely it's some sort of upbeat ¾ dance step. It feels good to let the feelings out. Swift finds pleasure in the absurdity of it. That's why he named his album Dressed Up for the Letdown. There's always something worth celebrating, even when that something isn't a good thing.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.