Singer-Songwriters Spin Their Tales

by Stephen Holden
New York Times
April 3, 1988

Gradually and with little fanfare, the singer-songwriter, the musical animal that threatened to overrun pop in the early 1970's, has regained a foothold in music following a prolonged and severe reaction.

The last two years have seen Paul Simon burst from his cocoon of melancholy self-absorption to regain a mass audience with 'Graceland.' Suzanne Vega has become the first full-fledged star in years to rise from the embers of New York folk music world. Elektra Records has just released a stunning debut album by Tracy Chapman, a 24-year-old black acoustic singer-songwriter from Boston with an acute social consciousness. [ A review by Jon Pareles is on page 31. ] Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, two gifted Texan storytellers, are being marketed as country artists by MCA Records' Nashville division, but their songs have a potentially much broader appeal.

Not so many years ago, the very term singer-songwriter made certain critics blanch with distaste and haul out pejoratives like 'wimpy,' 'navel-gazing,' 'narcissistic' and worse, to describe a musical genre fathered by Bob Dylan. The catchall term often used to lump together the first generation of singer-songwriters is 'confessional.' Reflecting on their personal psychic turmoil, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Laura Nyro, Janis Ian and others carried into the pop arena a literary impulse very similar in tone to the confessional literature of a previous generation of American poets.

Robert Lowell's 'Life Studies,' Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' and 'Kaddish' and the poetry of Sylvia Plath stand among the best-known literary prototypes for the next generation's self-contemplating 'song-poetry.' The influences of the Beats on Bob Dylan - and through Dylan on the subsequent singer-songwriter movement - can hardly be overstated. Ginsberg's 'Howl,' with its Old Testament cadences, sprawling lines and oracular rhetoric, was a crucial influence on Dylan's mid-60's rock surrealism and John Lennon's early-70's primal-scream records.

The singer-songwriters who refined and domesticated this effusive emotionality brought to the forefront of American pop a pervasive mood of disenchantment. Following the example of postwar poets whose personal confessions mirrored the afterglow of the country's wartime triumph, the singer-songwriters lamented a more evanescent dream - the fragmentation of the baby boom counterculture and its illusions of utopian ideals.

In 1972, it looked as though the singer-songwriter movement might coalesce into a broad-based adult tradition as vital and long-lived as the craftsmanly lineage of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and the Gershwins. One envisaged writers like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, James Taylor and Jackson Browne turning out recorded song cycles with the same regularity that their Broadway and Tin Pan Alley antecedents created theater and movie scores.

But instead of solidifying and taking over pop, the movement disintegrated. As the genteel white middle-class audience that identified with the singer-songwriters matured, it outgrew its attachment to artists who expressed their youthful turmoil. At the same time, many of the artists found themselves trapped in the confessional mode. Songwriters in the older theatrical tradition had had the ongoing challenge of writing for characters. And while Randy Newman, John Prine, Tom Waits and others have shown that it was possible to record cohesive pop song cycles depicting a social microcosm through a wide range of characters, their albums lacked mass appeal.

Having absorbed those lessons, today's singer-songwriters tend to think in less grandiose terms. Although the first-person singular has hardly vanished from the work of contemporary singer-songwriters, the 'I' narrating many songs is much less likely to represent the writer giving personal testimony than a fictional character telling a story. The tone of the contemporary lyrics is also much more likely to be matter-of-fact than poetic.

Nanci Griffith, who describes her twangy homespun music as 'folkabilly,' writes about the sort of people one might meet in the fiction of Eudora Welty or Larry McMurtry. In 'Love Wore a Halo (Back Before the War),' from her latest album, 'Little Love Affairs' (MCA 42102; all three formats), the singer draws a whimsical portrait of an eccentric couple who ran a seedy hotel on the New Jersey shore 40 or 50 years ago.

While the husband goes off to fight with the Seabees in the Philippines, his wife amasses a small fortune running numbers. They have a daughter who eventually takes over the establishment, and her parents retire to the Florida Keys, where they spend most of their time fishing. The daughter, who narrates the song, imagines her parents' lives before she was born as enchanted, and the song turns on a wistful golden fantasy of a more innocent time: 'Love wore a halo. . .back before the war/ When the men loved the women and the women knew what men were for.'

Lyle Lovett is a sort of postpunk cowboy whose songs take stock country and western images of religion, rednecks and the frontier and twist them back on themselves. In his sweet, country-flavored waltz, 'God Will,' the narrator asks an unfaithful lover, 'Who keeps on trusting you/ When you've been cheating?' and then sarcastically answers, 'God will but I won't/ and that's the difference between God and me.'

The rebellious narrator of 'If I Had a Boat' imagines he is both Roy Rogers as a bachelor and Tonto freed from service to the Lone Ranger escaping civilization to ride a pony on a boat in the middle of the ocean. In 'Pontiac,' the title song of his newest album (MCA/Curb 5748; all three formats), a bitter, aging World War II veteran vividly remembers killing German soldiers with his bare hands while he sits in a parked car discreetly spying on a young girl sitting on her front porch swing. The song presents an indelible photographic image from inside a fictional character's feverish mind.

Looking back at the autobiographical records of the early 70's, it would be foolish to dismiss a body of work that includes albums as multifaceted as Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' and 'For the Roses' and songs as scorchingly candid as Janis Ian's 'At Seventeen' or as lyrically prescient as Jackson Browne's 'Before the Deluge.' But as singer-songwriters reassert their place again in pop by telling stories and creating dramatic monologues sung by invented characters, the work has a solidity and humane perspective that can only come from looking beyond emotional vicissitudes of the moment and trying to figure out the world.

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