Look What the Fans Drug In:
A Tribute to the music of Michael Penn
FREE-FOR-ALL: "Now We're Even"
There are times that music encourages you wallow in the pain of a lost relationship, or provide the catharsis to overcome it. And then there are times that music can help reveal that the person you are with was all wrong from the start.
Free-For-All provided much of the soundtrack for my sophomore year in college, but my then girlfriend couldn't connect with Penn's metaphors and imagery. "Why does he rhyme all the time? My baby sees every sentence with an underline. Never uses turpentine. What the hell does that mean?!", she groused. Well, I'm not sure either, but I did know that my girlfriend and I weren't meant to last for the ages.
In fact, it was the surprising success of March that freed Penn to "risk being a bit more subversive lyrically". The poignant earnestness of March had been replaced by a deep, complex anger, starting with the embittered protagonist of the deceptively gorgeous "Long Way Down", which Penn considered "the next logical step" from "No Myth". That anger and aggression continues through the racial disharmony of 1992 Los Angeles in "Bunker Hill's" incisive social commentary (for Los Angeleno Wendy Karn, "over drawn and won't erase" sums up her whole experience of the city). Even the album title itself suggests a violent melee erupting both from within and without.
In a 1992 interview, Penn acknowledged that "I went out to the extremities more . The aggressive stuff is more aggressive, the folky stuff is more folky". "Long Way Down" demonstrates both ends of this spectrum, and performer Dave Sills chose this song "because it has one of my all time favorite lines in any song by any writer: "I've got a feeling she's been sleeping with the whole wide world". It kills me every time. As a songwriter, that's the kind of line I aspire to write." The melodic, "folky" aspects of "Coal" are highlighted in Matt Brooks' cover. His wife and song collaborator, Kristin Brooks, comments that Penn "has a meticulous.....(if not magical) way of blending countless layers of multiple instruments, bells and whistles, subtle hints, nods, variables and innuendos, etc, into every song SO WELL that you really feel that every minute detail belongs... He could put hundreds upon hundreds of individual elements and layers into one song, and they would ALL be relevant and justified."
These "extremities" oftentimes feature discordant sounds, while a plethora of real drums to replace March's fantastic (but decidedly more artificial) drum programming, all of which mesh perfectly with the continued beauty of his melodies and songwriting craft. His ability to jump between sounds and tones, such as from the quiet lyricism of "Coal" (Bob Clearmountain's mix remains one of Penn's favorite pieces of the album), while the dark, almost William S. Burroughs-surreal imagery of "Seen The Doctor" is striking. Penn demonstrates a mature ability to plumb angry, questioning depths without ever becoming contrived, adolescent or remotely self-pitying.
In the album's middle section, Tom Loiacono notes that "By the Book" isn't one of Penn's more elaborate creations, but it's "infectious in its simplicity, being basically only three chords." And the Gulf War references ("Show me a patriot, show me a Scud") can instantly transport a listener back to the tumultuous period of the early ‘90s. Mitch Harris loves the gabardine-suit visuals of "Slipping My Mind", and appreciates how the song "suggests life events involving guilt and forgiveness and/or karma, and reminds us (without apparent judgment) how details of events fade in our minds."
There's little question that the album is something of an acquired taste. Allen Walker calls "Drained" "Ennio Morricone meets Charles Manson! I love the kinetic energy and sonic schizophrenia that propels the lyric...with all the confusion the character experiences, he is absolute about that "one thing clear"."
Unfortunately, it was a taste that Penn's record label, RCA, never developed. They later showed astonishing callousness by reissuing March and including Free-for-All as "bonus tracks" - ignoring its status as an individualized work, much more of an evolution from March than a direct continuation. RCA added to the indignity by cutting off the exceptional "Now We're Even", so the tracks would fit neatly on one disc – as if pretending the song didn't exist!
Phil Wilson chose to cover that particular, lost song because of the interesting "pairs of things: here and Mexico, crow and chicken. Two fingers, tug of war, either or, even Steven, you and the shark. Even the melody has two parts!" Wilson wonders if Penn was conscious of that theme of doubling, or if it just happened that way – perhaps it was another "happy accident", as Penn would call it. Regardless, the album retains its complex power and emotional appeal. Speaking for myself, it remains a defining album.
Moving forward as a songwriter and producer, Penn finds himself constantly growing, learning that much of the process is instinctual, but there's also become a conscious effort over the years of "dismantling my own perfectionism... it's just a kind of narcissistic stumbling block". Yet, in Penn's endless search for perfection, he has proven that, in fact, there is gold in this barren town.
-- Dan Armstrong
COVER ALBUM CREDITS:
| Press | Site Info | Transcriptions | Main Menu |