Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Michael Penn: Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection

So I guess it’s time to wrap this up with Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection.


That’s the title of Penn’s “last” record, released in 2007, which makes it six years old now.


The “Best of” collection can be a lot of things.  Sometimes a singer leaves one label and still owes them a record, so they put out a collection.  Sometimes a group has so many hits that the label just wants them all under one roof, which probably isn’t quite as important in an iTunes world.


Sometimes a musician vanishes off the face of the planet and their label just keeps tossing out whatever it’s got in a desperate attempt to make some money on their investment.


Of course, the really bothersome collections are the ones missing major songs.  Peter Gabriel put out 16 Golden Greats and left In Your Eyes, arguably his most-loved song, off the CD.


And on the other side of the equation, you have groups that put out odd little collections of also-ran songs.  Lost demos.  B sides for various singles.  Soundtrack songs.


And of course, most Best-of collections also have a new song or two, just to catch the eye of the fans and collectors.  Guys like me.


And yet…


Palms’ booklet contains a little essay with quotes from Michael himself, talking about how he tried to make the record into a unique listening experience.  There are no new songs on the collection (more on this in a second), though it does have a couple of instrumental tracks, one which comes from a score he wrote.


There’s a demo for Me Around which removes the crunch-filled guitars and instead gives us an acoustic and Michael’s voice, and while I miss the guitar solo at the center of the song, I actually like this stripped-down version a bit better than the original.


But… here’s where it gets weird.  Really weird.


Because like I said, there aren’t any new songs here, to lure dudes like myself into the fray.  No, instead, he decided to rerecord some of his songs and release them a second time.


And it’s utterly pointless.


The arrangements are, I suppose, slightly different.  Michael thinks at least one of them is an improvement.


I disagree.


Back in college I once read a magazine article about a place that bought songs.  They said if you had a great song, you could do a piano/voice demo and the song would sell.  A great song is a great song.  But if you had a just-okay song, you had to polish it until it was near-complete.  You had to show what the song COULD be.


Michael tackles none of his could-bes. He takes on Bunker Hill, which had a great arrangement.  He redoes Long Way Down, which was perfect in its original incarnation.  And he takes another stab at Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun, which is a great song with a fine arrangement, and he doesn’t make it any better.


And that’s all she wrote.


There’s only one song from his previous record on this collection, which is Walter Reed.  The rest of his work is fairly well represented.  I do wonder why his work from Boogie Nights isn’t here at all, though I would guess it was a rights issue.


But really, the thing that ain’t here is what you usually look for on the Best of – the new songs.


That, to me, is what says that Michael Penn has really washed his hands of the rock business.


He’s a different guy now than when he started releasing records.  Back then, he was young and had great songs and not as many attachments.  Today he’s married and a parent.


And I’m a different guy too.


I think that’s what really saddens me when I listen to Palms.  He said he wanted to make a cohesive statement, but there’s nothing cohesive for me to hear.  His brilliant earlier stuff is stacked up against his later, not-as-great work.  The songs I can sing in my sleep are side-by-side with the songs that mean almost nothing to me.


My childhood is mixed with my adulthood.


In so many ways, Michael is like that old friend you have that slowly slips out of your life.  He meant so much, and then he meant less.


But when you think back on old times, there’s magic there.


I’m not sure what’s to become of Michael.  The TV show Girls just got a third season renewal, which means he has work for another year.  It’s been seven years since his last new record, and outside of movies and TV music he’s written exactly two songs that I know of.


If there was ever a fire in his belly to write songs, it appears to be missing now.


And I guess that’s okay.


It saddens me that there might never be another Michael Penn album, but it prevents me from having to buy it.  I mentioned Prince a couple of reviews ago, and how I picked up his latest work and felt a certain disappointment that it was and is so forgettable.


If Michael never releases anything else, I don’t have to judge it.  I don’t have to compare it to the still-perfect March.  I don’t have to feel guilt over the fact that I don’t like it.


And perhaps most importantly to me, I don’t have to feel a building excitement that the new record might be great, and then feel disappointed.


But like I do with most old friends, I just kinda hope that Michael is happy, making his music, hanging with his family, and knowing that he’s written a handful of great songs.


It’s more than a lot of us manage in life.

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