While trying to think about a way to frame my second-to-last essay on Michael Penn, I found myself thinking over and over about another musician: Bill Withers.
Bill is best known for the song Lean on Me, but if you run over to YouTube and type in his name, I suspect you’ll find one or two other songs you recognize. He was never a massive seller but – at least if Wikipedia is accurate – he never sold more than Gold on any of his records, and then only three times.
And more importantly for this re-review, when he was done, he was done. He dropped out of the music business in 1985, and never looked back. Since then, someone did a documentary about him, and he pops up from time to time contributing songs to other people’s records, but he’s not putting a band together and hitting the festival circuit. He’s not pulling a David Bowie and making a stealth album.
He said what he had to say, and now he’s done.
From what I understand, Bill could afford to do this. His songs are on the radio, he still sells some records, and he’s being covered and sampled on a pretty regular basis.
I think there’s a certain honor in realizing that you’ve said all that you have to say, throwing down the microphone and calling it a career. Hundreds or thousands of terrible band reunions, tours and records might never have come into existence if people didn’t need the money.
Heck, go to Wikipedia and look up five or ten of your favorite eighties bands. You thought they were broken up, and yet, if you poke a few of them you’ll find they’ve put out new records and hit the road. Not because they felt the churn of art in their bellies, but because they’re out of money and don’t feel like getting a job as a busboy.
I suppose this sounds like I’m setting up Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, as a failure. It was Penn’s last real record, and it came out in 2005, five whole years after MP4 stumbled into the light and then vanished from the charts. Or rather, never even touched the charts.
He took the lead of his wife, Aimee Mann, and put the album out on his own, though it was reissued two years later by Legacy recordings with some live tracks and an extra song. It still didn’t chart, and mostly just irritated me that a better version of something that I owned existed.
And yet, I never bit and bought again. Which probably says something.
What saddens me most about
(I refuse to type out that title again) is that it starts so well. Walter Reed, the opening track, gets
literally everything right. It has every
single great quality a song can have: it’s memorable, it’s sing-able, it sounds
so perfect that it seems to have not been written, but rather plucked from the
air in one giant whole. The arrangement
is gorgeous and perfect, not too much, not too little. Hollywood
It’s a great song.
It’s also the only song that made it onto Michael’s Best Of CD. The rest of it, on the other hand?
Well, there are three odd little instrumental/noise tracks that don’t add up to much. Michael’s had that kind of thing on his other records, but the tracks were at least somewhat memorable, or sort of darkly beautiful. Here, they’re kind of trifling.
Keep in mind, we’re talking about three out of twelve listed songs on the album. Literally one quarter of the record.
The next three songs on the album are good when I’m listening, but sitting at my desk typing now, I couldn’t sing them for you. I can sing the odd little tune Mary Lynn, which sits in the center of the album, but that has an odd reel/dirge sound to it, which strangely feels more “contemporary” in a world with Mumford and Sons banjo-ing it up.
So the center is odd, with Mary Lynn and the sound/instrumental sections, and then we’re back into songs and they are, once again, not bad.
But there aren’t really any classics there, and the album closes out with a voice/guitar song called Millionaire. Which isn’t listed as being part of the record, and seems to be there to pad the whole thing out, as it’s super-short.
The thing that gets to me, even as I look back to this record almost eight years later, is that it comes so close to sounding like Michel Is Back. In a way, Walter Reed is to blame. It’s probably Penn’s most perfect song since Free-for-All Came and went. In fact, if I could go back and drop it on March, I would.
Have I mentioned I love Walter Reed? Because man, I love that song.
Ultimately, it isn’t a bad little record, it’s just one that only had one great song to offer.
Interestingly, this was the last time Michael got into a studio and made an actual album. And yet, out in the world, he eventually tossed out a YouTube video, with a live performance of a song he’s never released.
More recently, he started writing the music for the TV show Girls, and had a song bounce onto their soundtrack.
And of course, he’s scoring multiple movies now, one or two a year.
I don’t think Michael ever made enough money to just walk away from the music business. Scoring pays, but most of the movies he scores are small, and the amount he probably brings in from them are minimal.
If I had to guess, I’d say that he really was just tired of trying to be a rock star. Scoring films gives you a backdrop to work from, and instead of reaching into yourself and pulling something new out, you can instead try to put up some pretty curtains in an already built room.
Plus, you know, you get to buy food.
I’ll talk a little bit about scoring next time. But right now, I just want to go listen to Walter Reed again, and sigh, and think about the fact that I might have heard the last great Michael Penn song.