Thursday, March 7, 2013

Michael Penn: MP4: Days Since A Lost Time Accident

Michael Penn’s fourth album actually came out pretty quickly, all things considered.  It was out in early 2000, which meant it took less than three years to write and record.


I’m not sure what sped up the process. 


Michael Penn is listed as the producer of most of the album, outside of the song Lucky One, which leads me to believe that this should be the most Michael-Penn-iest album of them all.  All the hooks and jangling and pop of the first two albums should be on display here.


And yet…


Things had changed for me again by the time MP4 hit shelves.  I had been married for about half of a year, had graduated from college and gotten my first “real” job. 


This was the first album I was really afraid to revisit, not because I thought it was bad, but because I had almost no memory of it.  And while bad is bad, unmemorable is sometimes worse, as it indicates that there’s nothing to latch onto and no reason to care.  Bad can be amusing.  Forgettable just leaves you wondering why you bother.


As I’ve said before, Penn’s first two albums are branded on me now.  I can pick them up and sing large chunks of them.  Even Resigned I remembered pretty well, though there were and are some holes.


Far, far too much of MP4 was a total mystery to me when it put it in the CD player for the first time in several years.


There’s a question there, and that question is: What changed?  Was it Michael?  Was it me?


I suspect a combination of both.


Out of school and married, my music listening time often wasn’t my own.  I could listen in my car, but my drive to work was less than ten minutes long each way.  And I didn’t do a lot of in-house music listening, because now it wasn’t just me in the house, it was me and my wife, and she didn’t always dig the same stuff I did.


Her reaction to Michael Penn was generally one of “tolerance.”


I don’t always expect greatness from an album, but what I do expect that I’ll get at least one great song.  It’s like getting through the bread of a sandwich and hitting that first real gush of jelly.  Everything up to then was okay, but the fruity sweetness makes it just that much better.


But I never really found that gushy sweetness I was looking for.


MP4 starts off with a boom and a crash and a strum and a hyperactive, zippy piano part.  The rhythm is trippy and awkward, and it reminds me a bit of the drum part in Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way, where you can never quite find the beat.


It’s produced within an inch of its life.  This isn’t the worst thing, but if I understand what’s going on, the reason the song sounds that way is because it was supposed to be some kind of hit single.  Only it didn’t really sound like a hit single.


Granted, neither did No Myth, but… well, No Myth was kind of a boot-stomping acoustic love song.  It was surprising and different, yes, but it was also very singable. 


Lucky One, on the other hand?  Coming back to it all these years ago, I love all the fiddly bits, the sudden shifts, and even the sudden odd slowdown at the end where it goes into a minor key and turns into a totally different song.


But it wasn’t a single. It wasn’t a return.  It wasn’t a big hit record.  It didn’t chart at all, from what I can tell.


And there were no other singles after that.


As I sat listening to MP4 for the first time in years, I was reminded of the last time I went to the beach with my kid.  We dug a hole and sat in it as the waves lapped warm water against us.  It was pleasant, but over time our hole started to vanish and we had to dig it again to get the same experience.


As I sit here typing this now, and glancing at the song list for MP4, my head feels like that pit of sand.


What I’m trying to explain is, the hole erased itself even as I sat there, and even as I sat listening to the songs on MP4, my brain was already forgetting the previous tune.  As I listened, I thought, “This is nice.  I kind of remember it now.”


But 36 hours later, even looking at song titles, I can barely extract mental snippets of some of the songs.


Obviously, I recall Lucky One, and the album closer Bucket Brigade has a nice piano riff that slips into a melody that is at least memorable enough for me to recall it now.


But most of the rest of the songs come to me in five or ten second snippets of chorus, if they come at all.  The lyrical content is largely an empty canvas on my grey matter.  The song Trampoline has a fun chorus, but what is the song about, and how does the verse go?


I can’t recall.


There are relationships you get into with musical artists that become confusing over time.  I have a deep abiding love of Prince, but a few years ago I realized I was buying his new records not because I desperately needed to hear them, but because I thought there must be something great buried in them that I wasn’t hearing.


Eventually, I realized that I simply didn’t care all that much what he put out.  There were good songs on his releases, but no great ones.


Am I comparing MP4 to Prince’s later-period output?  I am, but MP4 looks better by comparison.  I may not remember a lot of MP4, but I do remember some of it.  Whereas I just pulled up the song list for the last Prince album I bought, and over 80 minutes of music is largely a blank hole in my head.


Over the next decade, Michael produced only one album of new material, and mostly turned to film and TV music composition.  One could argue that if he’s busy, he might have time for both, but I wonder if perhaps his interest has waned. 


It’s difficult to be a working musician, much less a rock star, and I wonder if Michael never really wanted to be one.  His wife Aimee Mann is all over Facebook, posting and saying wonderful things about her fans and her shows.


Michael, on the other hand, I never see.  His web site is just about bare.  I only found out he had a song on the Girls TV show soundtrack because I went looking for him on Amazon and stumbled across it.


His last real album release was in 2005, with a reissue in 2007 and a “collection” album released in 2007 as well.


Which is to say, in the last 12 years he’s released one new album.  While Aimee has released five.


Maybe he just wants to fade into the background.  Maybe soundtracks scratch his writing itch.


Or maybe he figured he gave the rock star thing a shot, and he doesn’t want the tours and the running around and the various trappings that go with being at least semi-famous.


I dunno.  I’ll take another swipe on this train of thought when I re-check out his last couple of releases.

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