Jeff Maxwell has been making me laugh since the eighth grade.
I met him at the Mount Saint Charles Academy for Wayward Youths in Rhode Island. He looked like Jeff Daniels, had the martial arts skills of Jean Claude Van Damme, and was funnier than both of those guys put together. He was the only one brave enough to do stand-up comedy at our school talent show. He would occasionally organize “emergency fund drives” so that he could afford to travel the country. On one such trip, he drove to Florida, stayed just long enough to send postcards, and drove right back. He sang a song for my band that almost got me kicked out of high school. (That’s a story…) He taught me what a “time fuck” is.
And he has faithfully sent me letters, usually one a month or so, since 1992. I remember the first one I got posed the question, apropos of nothing, “Wouldn’t it be weird if we all had one arm that came straight out of our chests?” These letters never fail to make me crack up, and I’ve often wished I could share them with everyone I know.
And now I can.
Jeff Maxwell has started an e-column, one which he plans to write every Sunday. He’s wanted to be a writer ever since I’ve known him (that or a CIA agent, it was a toss-up for a while…), and he’s taken the bull by the horns and started his own thing, which he’ll send to anyone that wants it. If these columns are anything like the letters I’ve been getting for 10 years, then all of you will really enjoy his work. It’s free and easy – just write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I wanted to add a quick shout-out to Jeff’s lovely wife, Melissa, whom I read about for at least a year before I met her. If ever two people were perfect for each other, it’s these two. If you subscribe to his column, I’m sure you’ll read nothing but nice things about her. Believe every word.
It seems to me that being the King of Pop is a lot like being undisputed ruler of a septic tank. All you really have to offer people is second-hand crap.
Which would be an apt analogy if pop music weren’t so… well, popular. What passes for pop these days probably wouldn’t pass for Muzak in the ‘70s, when even the sappiest musicians were at least that: musicians. (Okay, except Cher.) These days, we accept the most minor variations in sound and style as “personality,” even though most pop music is made by the same three studio guys. New Kids on the Block are the Backstreet Boys are ‘NSync, just as En Vogue are SWV are Destiny’s Child, forever and ever amen. The only differences are in the packaging.
Hence, it’s become the standard in popular music to shift the focus onto the package, as opposed to the rancid candy inside. Does anyone really like Britney Spears for her songs? If you answered yes, then imagine the same music sung the same way by a 350-pound black woman. There’s no way those records would sell with that woman’s picture on the cover, but the music would be exactly the same. That’s the miraculous tragedy of marketing.
Hype has become a central component of pop record releases. New albums can’t just be new albums, they have to be complete revolutions of pop culture. Every new disc has to be perceived as the biggest, best thing ever undertaken by humans, or else why bother? Who wants to buy a collection of songs when you can buy a lifestyle? Never mind that the albums themselves are very much like the wizard behind the curtain. They’re small, ineffectual things that the flashy marketing is hoping you won’t pay any attention to.
If this is the case for your average pop act, imagine how much bigger and better an album by the King of Pop must appear? Michael Jackson has inexplicably put himself in this position, where every new release has to be viewed as the culmination of centuries of human history and the dawning of a grand new age. Expectations are so high for his stuff that anything short of God almighty descending from Heaven with the 11th through 15th commandments would be a disappointment. It’s a wonder he releases anything at all.
But he has. Jackson’s sixth solo album, Invincible, hit last month after an eight-year wait. Angels did not sound trumpets. The earth’s tectonic plates did not shift. The planet did not go spinning out of its orbit. Jesus Christ did not request “You Rock My World” as a personal dedication to Mary Magdalene on TRL. Obviously, Invincible was a big fat failure.
The tragedy of Invincible, and in fact of Jackson’s entire post-Bad career, is that it isn’t that awful. Compared to a lot of listless pop records that have come out recently, it sparkles with character and class. Jackson’s legion of fans, at the very least, should be pleased with all 16 songs, but even more discerning music lovers could find one or two surprises here.
Invincible’s biggest problem as an album is that there are too many producers. The whole thing sounds drowned in money, so much so that Jackson himself, unarguably the album’s biggest asset, is often obscured beyond recognition. Young punk Rodney Jerkins, responsible for six tracks here, seems especially overawed by the chance to work with Jackson. Just about every second of his productions is on skittery beat overload. I wouldn’t be surprised if he spent months polishing these tracks to ridiculous extremes.
There are two superb songs on Invincible, and not coincidentally, they’re the ones that sound the least overworked. “Speechless” is a classic Jackson ballad, produced by the man himself, in which he makes the trite and Disney-esque work like no one else can. It’s almost a capella in its arrangement, and sequenced as it is after seven giant studio creations, it’s like a breath of fresh air. “Whatever Happens,” meanwhile, is a suspenseful number that actually makes tasteful use of Carlos Santana. Both of these songs point in the direction this album should have gone, and probably would have gone were they making an album instead of a royal proclamation.
The problem with being crowned King is that you’ve suddenly got a long way to fall. Just ask Paul McCartney.
He’s one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, a title he’d have earned just for writing “Here, There and Everywhere” back when he was fab. As the poppiest of the Beatles, it seems that if anyone can lay claim to the title of King of Pop, it’s McCartney. He obviously doesn’t want it, though, because album after agonizing album, he churns out tripe that even his disciples would reject. It’s terribly depressing.
Driving Rain is McCartney’s first album of new material since his wife Linda’s death, and by McCartney standards, it’s a very good effort. That may be because those standards have been eroded by decades of silly love songs, but nevertheless, Driving Rain is the best new McCartney album in about 25 years. Which unfortunately says more about those 25 years than it does about the album.
Like his last effort, the covers album Run Devil Run, Driving Rain sounds like it was done in a weekend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For a guy who spent two decades sounding washed up, this album finds him expressing a surprising amount of energy and passion. He lets that energy overtake all reason by the album’s dreadful conclusion, the 10-minute repetitive slog “Rinse the Raindrops,” but on the shorter tracks, it adds tremendously to what could have been a soggy, sappy pile of dreck.
The lyrics, without fail, drag the record down considerably. Long-suffering McCartney fans have come to expect drivel from him, and Driving Rain certainly delivers. Try this bit from the title track: “Something’s open, it’s my heart, if something’s missing it’s when we’re apart, if something’s good it’s when we’re back together again.” Or how about this, from “Your Way”: “I like it, please don’t take my heart away, it’s happy where it is so let it stay.” Or how about this, from “Your Loving Flame”: “When we kiss, nothing feels the same, I could spend eternity inside your loving flame.” He even goes on to rhyme, “What am I to do, if I don’t have you, I’ll be feeling blue.” That’s a step or two away from Mr. Rogers land.
The music does make up for it, especially the sweet “From a Lover to a Friend,” the pulsing “Tiny Bubble” and the rollicking title track. It’s no surprise, though, that the best song is almost entirely instrumental: “Heather” is three minutes of joyous piano and guitar, and brings to mind those lengthy bridge sections Wings would sometimes do.
Overall, Driving Rain isn’t that bad, but you’ll probably find yourself asking if an album by one of the greatest living songwriters shouldn’t be better than this. Yeah, it should, but after decades of being fed dog biscuits, even a greasy cheeseburger can taste like filet mignon. This album definitely puts him back on track, as long as you don’t think about the fact that with a little more effort, McCartney could easily outclass anyone making pop music today.
So, okay, if McCartney abdicated the throne in 1970, Jackson lost it in 1990, and none of the new guys seem capable of claiming it, who gets to be King of Pop? If we’re talking about music and not marketing, the obvious choice would seem to be Elvis Costello, but he’s gone all classical on us and taken Billy Joel with him. Elton John is a shadow of his former self. The King of Pop, it would seem to me, has to have been at it for a while, or else Ben Folds would be a good suggestion. So, who?
Well, there is one guy who’s been making deep, powerful pop music for about 25 years. He’s always overlooked because of his public persona, but his musical genius is undeniable. He even has a royal nomenclature. And while I may be laughed at for suggesting this, he seems to be the strongest candidate, one that has never really gotten his due. Give up?
His name is Prince, and he is funky.
Here’s a guy who’s a perfect example of packaging being more important in the culture’s eyes than music. Prince is definitely a self-obsessed weirdo who dresses funny and preens for the camera whenever possible. He’s also amassed one of the most consistent catalogs in pop music history. There has been no downward slide, no descent into sugary radio balladry, and no VH-1 special. The last (and only) rocky patch in his catalog was 1990’s mixed-bag Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. It’s been smooth sailing from there, punctuated by moments of towering excellence.
He’s also a marketing moron. In 1992, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in an attempt to screw Warner Bros. Records. His insistence on being called The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (or just The Artist for short) capsized whatever good will he had gained with Diamonds and Pearls, one of his most commercially successful works. He complained endlessly until Warners released him from his contract in 1996, and he celebrated with Emancipation, a three-disc set of amazing material on his own NPG Records.
Of course, at $25, no one bought it, but that didn’t stop Prince from releasing a four-disc set next, the stunning Crystal Ball. Packaged with this set was The Truth, one of the man’s finest works, which no one heard. Thankfully, he marked his return to major label status in 1999 with Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic on Arista Records. Sadly, the album was merely good – if he’d released The Truth through Arista, it would have been a smash.
True to form, Prince has reclaimed his name for his first new album as Prince since 1992. He’s also gone back to NPG Records to release The Rainbow Children. He’s also made another absolute masterpiece that no one will hear.
The Rainbow Children is being misinterpreted as a Bible-thumping evangelical record. Not true. Midway through, he samples Martin Luther King’s famous quote – you know, the only one anyone ever quotes – about people coming together to sing the old Negro spiritual, “Free at Last.” Well, The Rainbow Children is an attempt to write a new Negro spiritual. It’s a concept album about the people of God and their spiritual history, and it’s as much about sex and race as it is about religion.
Musically, Prince has encapsulated 100 years of so-called black music into his funk-pop style. Imagine Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, the Delfonics and LL Cool J all getting down at a southern Baptist church and you’ve got the idea. Complex jazz fusion melds seamlessly into silky R&B, which morphs into slamming funk with blistering guitar solos weaving in and out. It’s nearly breathtaking how Prince can jump from the orchestral pomp of “Wedding Feast” to the smooth soul of “She Loves Me 4 Me” to the loose anger of “Family Name” with such ease.
Prince played the majority of the instruments himself, but you’d swear that a band the size of Parliament Funkadelic was jamming out these sounds. Prince has always been about God and sex, so the subject matter of The Rainbow Children is really nothing new, just more overt. Even so, you’d think he really had found religion, so reenergized does he sound throughout. The album ends with 16 of the finest minutes in Prince’s massive catalog, swelling from the giant funk workout “The Everlasting Now” to the gospel-tinged majesty of “Last December.” Even if you’re an atheist, you’ll be clapping along.
The Rainbow Children is undeniably weird, like all of Prince’s best work, but it’s genuinely about something, and it’s a musical work of wonder. He seems not only freed of commercial constraints here, but of commercial concerns, striving only to make the greatest art he can. The Rainbow Children is among the very best Prince albums, which is really saying something. It’s the pop equivalent of a good Spike Lee film or Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields: an ambitious, polarizing work that paints its author as a true artist.
In the end, Prince may not want the title of King of Pop either, but he deserves it for 25 years of uncompromisingly great music. While Michael Jackson’s been believing his own hype and Paul McCartney’s been floundering about in search of a good record, Prince has been delivering, year after year. If that were the criteria, he’d have this competition all wrapped up. Okay, next week, I dunno, but probably a hard rock roundup of sorts. Top 10 List in four weeks…
Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone.
See you in line Tuesday morning.