Saturday, December 8, 2012

Marshall Crenshaw, singing the thin line between cynicism and faith

I'm generally not a "lyrics first" rock and roll fan—music, hooks, changes, and textures lead my body, and my head follows. But I do like paying to attention to thoughtful lyrics across an artist's career, especially if that career is a long one such as Marshall Crenshaw's. One of Crenshaw's most indelible songs is "Cynical Girl," his heart-catching ode to irony and disaffection, one of the great examples in 1980s rock and roll of "fun songs about sad stuff." Crenshaw's sweet melody, ringing guitar, and gaily struck bells provide the dulcet ballast against the pessimism in the lyrics. The whole thing's fun and danceable, and that's the point for this couple who will find a dark corner away from the mainstream "real world" and live out their smirking romance far from popular culture and the illusions it maintains. It's great, shouldabeenahit stuff. I was sent the first time I heard it, shortly after Crenshaw's self-titled debut album was released in 1982. 

Nearly a decade later, things have changed a bit. Though in "Cynical Girl" the singer distrusts illusions, favoring the sexiness of scorn and skepticism, he may have fallen for the illusion of his cynical girl who promised deliverance from the everyday:
Well I hate TV
There's gotta be somebody other than me
Who's ready to write it off immediately
I'm lookin' for a cynical girl
I'll know right away by the look in her eye
She harbors no illusions and she's worldly-wise
And I'll know when I give her a listen that she
She's what I've been missin'
What I've been missin'
I'll be lost in love...
But over time love grows complicated between adults who've committed themselves to tough ideals. Nearly a decade after Crenshaw recorded "Cynical Girl" he released Life Is Short, his final album for Warner Brothers, a major label exasperated with its inability to deliver consistent chart hits for Crenshaw. The Ed Stasium-produced sounds are a bit dated and the songs are too long, but Life's Too Short is, like the majority of Crenshaw's albums since the late-80s, underrated, not enough folks paying attention to the maturity that by necessity was working its way into Crenshaw's lyrics. I don't know the man and so I don't know what his personal life was like in the early 1990s, but his songs began reflecting some unease during that decade. A friend once dismissed Crenshaw as writing songs about "high school hops," which is patently untrue. "Don't Disappear Now" is a great song, a smoldering, disconsolate pop tune about abandonment and shattered fantasies. Be careful what you wish for, Marshall: your dreamy, cool Cynical Girl has morphed into the one who vanishes on you, herself unable to trust the illusion of romance and commitments. Of course, you were both probably like this back in 1982, but were young and faux-earnest enough to ignore where sexy cynicism can lead: to disappointments, and an inability to live with much currency in the casually spurned "real world."
"There is a certain appeal to danger and pain"
When she whispered those words, I said, "What's your name?"
Right then I knew in my heart
That we shouldn't start
But there you go...
Could she mess up my mind?
She looked so fine
I just had to know.
A month of fucking follows. Then:
So just imagine how I'm feeling right now
No word from her again today
Did she follow that dream like a flaming star
I hope she hasn't gone to stay
I just wish that I could find a way
To make her hear these words somehow
I need you bad
Don't disappear now
We'll meet again by and by
'til then I'll try to keep moving my shoes
One step ahead of the blues
I have no idea if Crenshaw considers such correspondences among his own songs. It's fun to brush away the powdered sugar on top of his early records and see what remains: bruised, rueful acknowledgements of flawed characters and of a world that needs rock and roll precisely because the world disappoints so often. Tonight's cynical girl can disappear tomorrow.

"Cynical Girl," Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

"Don't Disappear Now," Life's Too Short (1991)


Anonymous said...

Marshall Crenshaw has announced a vinyl EP and digital subscription series:

Anonymous said...

Joe, you've nailed it again.

I was attracted to my now-wife because she was a Marshall Crenshaw fan when girls (for the most part) back then had no interest in this kind of music.

I always took the line "follow that dream like a flaming star" as an inside joke to Elvis fans, the titles of two of his movies. Marshall did write the book on Hollywood Rock!

One last story, saw him do a great show with the Bottle Rockets as his backing band; Bun E. Carlos emerged from the crowd to sit in on their encore of "Surrender." Pretty cool.

Let's Find H-Man A Wife said...

Song just came on my Iphone. Some of us want to find a cynical girl; what a great, great song.