Friday, March 1, 2013

Michael Penn: Resigned

I’ve been struggling over the last week as I tried to determine the best way to approach talking about Resigned.


Much of that has to do with the way I remembered (or didn’t really remember…) what kind of album it was.  My recall was that it was good, but much less fiddly and straightforward.  My memory of it was that it was more of a “regular” record, without the odd little details and twists that made Penn’s first two albums so great.


What I found is that it was more fiddly than I remembered.  Listening to the song Try, the album’s opener, you’ve got a tricky little acoustic guitar chord progression, some kind of keyboard string sound, and some skittery drums and then suddenly it’s into what Michael does best: a solid melody over solid acoustic guitar strumming and plucking.


Then the chorus comes, with its electric guitar crunch, and more keyboard (organ, I think?) and this great bridge and yeeeeeeeeeeessssssssssss…


It’s a great song.  The only problem is, the rest of the tracks don’t get to quite that level of awesome. 


But let’s back up. 


Resigned came out in June of 1997.  It was a summer release, just before my birthday.  I was working second shift, which meant I started work at two, and I didn’t have a car of my own.  My mom had her vehicle all morning, and so just before work I hit the music store and picked up Resigned.


At the time, neither of my parent’s cars had CD players in them.  So I sat in my car, in the parking lot of my temp job, and read through the liner notes.  I wouldn’t be home until after 10 PM.  I wasn’t going to get to listen to this thing I’d waited five years for until the next day.


It was a weird time.


A lot had happened since the last time Michael had put out a CD.  I had gone through my first major breakup, and I was still learning how to date again.  The chunks of Free-for-All that had been all bitterness and anger had more meaning for me now that I’d gone through a major breakup, though my level of vitriol never quite reached Penn-ian levels.


Beyond that, I was discovering just how lonely your own hometown could be.  So many of the people I knew had moved away for school or jobs, and most of them didn’t come back for the summer.  Even if they were around, I was frequently taking temp jobs at odd hours to raise money for college.


By the time I got home, I would stay up too late reading or playing around on the computer, go to bed in the wee hours of the morning, and sleep much of the day away until it was time to work again.


I put Resigned into the player when I got home, but didn’t listen to it until the next day.  Something about being polite to the people sleeping in the house.


Try blew me away, I remember.  Me Around, the next song, was also quite good. 


And then we were at Like Egypt Was.  It was obtuse, but lyrically clever, and it was… I don’t even know.  Rocky.  Chord-wise, it felt sideways and off-kilter to me, like it was trying to be exotic.  It wasn’t terrible, but it was probably the first Penn song I could think of that didn’t make me want to pick up a guitar and learn to play.


This was followed by Out of My Hands, which is a gorgeous song with the strangest arrangement.  It’s this odd little repetitive bass riff, which distracts from the prettiness of the song.  And it is pretty, maybe one of the top three prettiest Penn ever created.


But that bass… I dunno man, I just dunno.  I thought it was a strange choice, and even when I sing along with the song, I try to unhear it.


There are two more great songs after that, Small Black Box (which might be about a dead relationship, and might be about a plane crash) and I Can Tell, which eases you into itself like it was a warm bath, and then envelopes you in layers and layers and layers of instruments and melodic lines.


But the rest is just good, edging towards very good.


It was hard not to be disappointed at the time.  A five year wait barely netted me forty minutes of new material, and while I was deeply in love with March and mostly in love with Free-for-All, Resigned was merely a like for me.


It grew on me as I listened to it more and more, but I was also able to skip parts of it, something that hadn’t happened to me on a Penn record in the past.  And with only eleven songs from beginning to end, it seemed odd to me that he averaged only two new songs per year.


There was a copy of the CD at the college radio station at my school, and I spent much of the first semester trying to turn Out of My Hands into a hit.  And yet, every time I called it in, the reaction at the other end of the line was not, “Cool,” but, “Who?”


Listening to it again today, I think I get what he was going for.  He sets aside the acoustic for much of the record, relying on the crunchy electric guitar that was often the staple of his producer, Brendan O’Brian, who also produced albums by Pearl Jam and Matthew Sweet.


But that might just be the issue with the recording in general.  It doesn’t feel like Michael.  It feels like a rock record of that one particular era.  It’s not that it aged poorly, but you can feel that it has aged.  It’s a record stuck in a little window of time, with the sounds that were big then, and with Michael slid over it like a slipcover on a white couch.


March and Free-for-All feel like they weren’t from any particular era, like they were dropped from the sky and created away from what the rest of the world was creating.  This feels like it was Michael’s version of a rock record, and that makes it a bit of a lesser thing.


In the end, I liked this less than what came before.  But what came after gave me a new appreciation for all the good contained on Resigned.

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