Did everyone watch The West Wing last week? I want to be Aaron Sorkin in the worst way.
So, happy Easter. This is the first year since I met him that I won’t be spending the holiday with ex-roommate Gary Porro and his family. In fact, I won’t be spending it with anyone. I have a rousing day of comic books and bad movies planned, though, so don’t worry about me.
If you scroll on over to the Onion, that wonderful satirical online newspaper, though, they’ve got one of the funniest Easter features I’ve ever seen. It’s a list of least popular Easter Sunday sermons. My favorites were “The Jew Who Couldn’t be Killed” and “See You At Christmas.”
All right, enough miscellaneous crap. My Shawn Colvin album finally came in, and I’ve heard it enough times to form some coherent comments, methinks. I was going to discuss the incredible new Iona album, Open Sky, but I’ll get to that, probably two weeks hence. I’ve got that double-disc Ani DiFranco album winging its way to me for next time (hopefully). Still, I want to put in an early recommendation for Open Sky. It’s neat.
Shawn Colvin’s album is called Whole New You, which can be taken several different ways. Sweeping changes seem to be in store from the moody cover shot and the title, but the album itself belies that. This is not a whole new Shawn Colvin, even though she’s had plenty of time to develop a new sound if she wanted one. Her last album, the great A Few Small Repairs, came out in 1996, and it spawned a huge hit in “Sunny Came Home.”
That album was inspired by a messy, painful divorce. Whole New You seems to be inspired by nothing at all, which leads me to a confounding idea. I’m always torn between personal and artistic concern for my favorite musicians. While I never wish another human being harm (well, not a lot of harm…), I have found that the best art comes from suffering. When bad things happen, great art is often the result, and while I don’t take any joy in seeing artists racked with personal pain, I can’t deny the tinge of excitement I get when I hear about the horrible circumstances under which a new project was birthed.
There are people who believe that art should be pleasing to the senses, and any art that doesn’t engender that warm feeling somehow has missed the mark. I strongly disagree. Art should engage the senses, true, but from there it has free rein to sicken, disturb, excite and otherwise move us. Some of the best art comes from a sense of internal healing, and if it does its job well, that piece of art forces the viewer (listener, reader, whatever) to go through the healing process with the artist.
Pain is the most difficult thing to communicate effectively, since the human mind is designed to wipe those experiences from the memory. Great artists not only communicate their pain, but put you through it vicariously. If it’s done well, a true communication of pain is unforgettable. (For a good example, listen to Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun.” You’ll only ever have to hear it once.)
My point here is that while I’d never wish Shawn Colvin any personal catastrophes, she’s a considerably better songwriter in their wake. If Whole New You is any indication, her life is going quite well. The record, sad to say, is inexcusably boring.
My problems with it extend beyond the lack of compelling subject matter. Plenty of great records have been made about nothing at all. In fact, most of the Beatles’ catalog fits that bill. If Colvin had just written a bunch of airy songs, I wouldn’t be as disappointed. My main difficulty here is how disinterested Colvin seems in her own record.
While her name and photo appear on the cover, Colvin at best owns a 40% share of Whole New You. Her frequent collaborator, John Leventhal, has commandeered this recording like an invading army, and Colvin doesn’t sound like she put up much of a fight. Leventhal co-wrote every song, and played 85% of the instruments as well as producing. For the first time on any of her records, Colvin contributes nothing here but vocals. (Most amusing to me was her endorsement credit: “Shawn Colvin uses D’Addario strings.” Not on this record, she doesn’t.)
Colvin apparently decided that since Leventhal did such a good job on Repairs, a 50-50 partnership album all the way, she’d hand the reins over to him entirely. Consequently, the songs all sound similar (except for the moving closer, “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now”), and Colvin herself just sounds bored, like she’s been standing around the studio with nothing to do.
Absent from this record is any sense of the passion that infused Repairs. Colvin all but screamed “Get Out of This House” on that album, and you could feel her fury. The primary emotion she projects on Whole New You is apathy, which brings us to the more depressing interpretation of the title. “I used to care,” she seems to be saying, “but that’s not me anymore.”
The real bummer here is that some of Colvin’s lyrics are terrific. “Nothing Like You” is a nifty double-twist, and “One Small Year” speaks of perseverance in hushed tones that bring Aimee Mann crashing to mind. It’s Leventhal, though, who obliterates any sense of the Colvin of old on some of the potentially best tracks. There are some who feel that the lyrics are all that matter. (There are, in fact, some who feel that the author of the lyrics should get full songwriting credit.) I’m not one of those, having always argued that lackluster music can bring down even the most poetic lyrics. Whole New You contains a few master’s theses on this point.
Take “Another Plane Goes Down,” which could be in the top five best Colvin lyrics. I can’t give the full effect by excerpting it – you need the whole four verses and two choruses for that. It’s the story of a woman dreaming about her life after watching a news story about a plane crash, and it delivers some spine-shivering imagery. Okay, I’ll excerpt: “He says the way that it happens is your heart is so heavy, it rips away upon impact/and then you just bleed inside, you don’t even feel a thing/they found her on a hill in Columbia, intact among the debris.”
You’d think that Colvin and Leventhal would want to accentuate the lyrics with some haunting melodic lines and production touches, but no. The music is bland, the delivery is trite, and everyone involved sounds like they’re eyeing the time clock. As a poem, it’s moving and powerful. As a song, it’s dull and forgettable. This sort of miscalculation is inexcusable. The same mistake is made on “Roger Wilco,” in which you can hear an incredibly disaffected recitation of the line, “MIA or KIA, it’s up to you, it’s not for me to say.”
The emotions come out on “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now,” a sweet, touching coda that, at two minutes and change, doesn’t make up for the rest of the record. My feeling is, if you’re going to take five years to create 45 minutes of music, make sure that all 45 minutes are worth those five years. Whole New You has some decent songs, but overall it’s uninspiring in ways this artist has never been before. Not only was it not worth the five-year wait, it wasn’t worth the 15-day delay it took to show up at my local record store. (Had to get that dig in there before I signed off.)
Nex week, two hours of Ani D. Happy bunny day, and check out the website: www.tm3am.com.
See you in line Tuesday morning.