Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Halcyon days

Fall wears on here in the Midwest. It's actually warmed up a bit but since I worked overnights, I missed my window at getting some of the outside stuff that requires warmer temperatures done as the weather forecast for the rest of the week is rain, rain and more rain. Well, as Joni Mitchell would say, nothing can be done. We just hope for another warm day and me with a little more ambition.

Mary Chapin Carpenter is not really a fall artist for me. I started consuming her music in January of 1994 and her back catalog really went on to define that late winter and spring for me. Still, she has a bit of an autumn vibe to her music, probably because she released Stones in the Road in October of 1994. It was the first album of Carpenter's that I bought as a new release and therefore is notable if for no other reason than the time of year in which it was released.

I was in college when this album came out and thought I was poor but really had no idea. I remember buying the cassette single of "Shut Up And Kiss Me" because I had rationalized that I wouldn't be able to afford Stones In The Road. This is likely because I had just dropped a wad of money on Barbra Streisand's The Concert and Madonna's Bedtime Stories loomed large on the horizon. So, I figured, I'd rather spend $2.99 or whatever cassette singles sold for than $15.99 on the full album.

As you probably can predict, I ended up spending $18.98 + tax because I caved and bought the album on the day of its release. I still have the CD, but the cassette single was given to Good Will ages ago. (along with all my other cassette singles - what was I thinking?!)

Stones in the Road has aged better than I thought it would. I remember getting it and being a little bit disappointed. It is certainly a more solemn affair than Come On Come On. I admire that it did not try to copy its predecessor's winning formula. Additionally, I have always found Carpenter's introspection exceedingly attractive, sexy even. Say what you will about introverts, but still waters do run deep. Overall, the album suffers from, as this Entertainment Weekly review said, OFAS (Overly-Ambitous Followup Album Syndrome). Not much seems as effortless as "Passionate Kisses" or "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" or even "Only A Dream". I felt like the album was TOO introspective, buckling under the weight of socially conscious lyrics and quiet guitar picking. I kept waiting for her to cut loose, which she never really did, except for the previously mentioned "Shut Up & Kiss Me" which feels every little bit like the song the record company forced her to record and shove on the album in order to guarantee a radio hit.

But like I said, time has been kind to this album. Part of that is that it was, in my estimation, the last really good Mary Chapin Carpenter album for a decade. The two albums that came between Stones in the Road and Between Here and Gone were substandard by nearly anyone's definition, although there were a handful of good songs on each of them. But what has really served it well is that which worked against it to begin with - the introspection seems real and true. Carpenter is earnest in her songwriting and delivery, but she rarely if ever veers into maudlin. That's not an easy thing to do. "House of Cards" is the peppiest song ever about broken homes and the facade of suburbia. Who would have ever thought that she could get a whole song - and a good one at that - out of a newspaper article regarding the death of John Doe No. 24 ?

As always, it's my relationship to the music that defines it for me. As I have said before, Carpenter arrived at a pretty critical time for me. I remember reading back in 1994 a particularly unfriendly review of one of her albums (probably Come On Come On), with the reviewer stating that Mary Chapin Carpenter must be hell in a relationship, always wondering how things are going. Even though that sentiment was pretty mean-spirited, I had a moment of self-recognition in that statement. I don't get that vibe from her anymore, nor do I get it from myself. I always like to think that as Carpenter has matured, so have I. While I certainly have no personal connection to her, we seem to be on similar spiritual journeys. So when I think about a song like "Jubilee", which I vividly recall listening to on an Iowa City bus, I can see the growth. In "Jubilee", Carpenter sings:

'Cause the people who love you are waiting
And they'll wait just as long as need be
When we look back and say those were halcyon days
We're talking 'bout jubilee

I think that even then I knew that I'd look back on those days like that, but I was mostly amazed that "halcyon" was an actual word. For all I knew, it was just the name of a drug. However, as I've said before THESE are the good old days, and therefore are those same halcyon days.

(Who says men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses? I totally would!)


John said...

I love me some MCC. I was able to recognize that it was a good CD when it came out, but "Shut Up and Kiss Me" actually had a reverse effect on me. I despised it a bit because it was so formulaic compared to the rest of the CD. I need to go back and check it out.

Dan said...

I feel much the same way about "Shut Up & Kiss Me" - it is so calculated, but in my relistens to the album as I was preparing to write this post, it's not nearly as awful as I remember. Still, it pales in comparison to most of the rest of the CD.