As a poet, Tom Verlaine is a guitarist. Some of his lyrics are like chords, functioning to set up his stingers and surreal one-liners. The actual music in his songs serves to set his words up, which means that between his singing and his actual heroic guitar playing he is almost constantly soloing. That is what made Television such an amazing band; one could never really tell where the songs were going next, but one always knew that Verlaine knew.
As huge as Television’s two original albums loom in new wave history, though, I know plenty of people who think that he really hit his stride as a solo artist. I still remember the perplexed look on my college roommate’s faces when I first played them the cassette tape of Cover for them — but after a few days they had memorized the whole thing, and we all went around singing “Lindi-Lu” together when we were drunk, which was a lot. And there are plenty of things on 1987’s Flash Light that are hard for me to listen to because they are so nakedly emotional and strange.
Songs and Other Things is Verlaine’s first album as a singer-songwriter since 1990, but he hasn’t lost a step. If anything, this is fiercer and tougher and more ambitious than The Wonder. The guitar skills are still in full effect, as he proves early with the voodoo blues lines he spits out on “Heavenly Charm” seconds before he lays down the nastiest- and chunkiest-sounding power chords ever made. Every song has a new OMG-did-he-just-PLAY-that moment, which is what we have come to expect from the master. We are not disappointed.
It would not be a Verlaine album without plenty of lyrics that defy analysis on the first or fifth or thirteenth listen. Very few of them sound like anything that anyone else could have written. “Orbit” begins with an ominous drumbeat from Louie Appel and the cryptic words, “You’re the girl who just stopped talking / No more would be all right / Blue window here without a frame / A ghost goes through your arms.” His aim is not to lead your mind down any particular path, but rather to give you some images and let your own subconscious put them together. That is why he can get away with stuff like “Five ugly birds crawl across your table / Oh, those rascals!” as easily as he coos out romantic stuff like “O to be summoned by / Unseen and sparkling eyes.” (Aw.)
To me, the most impressive thing about Songs and Other Things is that Verlaine’s singing has actually gotten stronger with time. Verlaine’s oft-tremulous voice has always been an interesting instrument, as perfect for fans as it is off-putting for outsiders. But here he is able to pull off sexy (“Heavenly Charm”, “The Day on You”) right alongside blissed-out naivete (“The Earth Is in the Sky”) and sly indie-soul (“Documentary”). Verlaine sounds downright menacing on the chorus of “Nice Actress” (“Never said you were some FUCKED-up actor / But there IS a hidden factor”), which sounds great on him. And when he finally gives himself space to do some vocal riffs on the epic “Shingaling,” he testifies and coos his nonsensical horny words over the loosest funk beats ever associated with uptight ol’ Tom Verlaine.
This is a great album, but not just because Tom Verlaine has done classic things in the past. Its greatness isn’t just attributable to his long layoff, either. The truth is that Songs and Other Things is a great album because of its songs, and its other things. Damn, 2006 is shaping up nicely.