“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna
Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.
No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.
I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”
These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.
This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.
“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.
Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”
The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.
The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.