Peter Mulvey & David Goodrich
The Trouble with Poets
T.S. Eliot wrote a famous essay on Hamlet in which he argued that the play was centrally flawed. He said there was nothing in the play to account for Hamlet's deep-seated angst. There was no "objective correlative," a thing you could point to and say - "Aha!, no wonder he's so conflicted." And Hamlet bugs us because of this.
I have a similar feeling about Mulvey's new work. This is a collection of well-made, poetic and intriguing songs, powerfully produced. But it's often hard to see what he's getting so worked up about. Peter refers to one song, "Eyes Front," as his "Paranoid X-Files Song" but a lot of the songs could be summed up this way - a lot of passion, inspired imagery and imagination, but not always much of a storyline to pin the shifting emotions on.
The title song opens the album with the half-ironic, "The trouble with poets is they talk too much." He complains about "their" failure to relate to us, while he struggles with his own unnamed troubles and griefs:
I know it's only trouble
I know it makes us real
But I wish these griefs of mine
Were something I could steal
The problem isn't love, it's the fear of death:
The trouble with time is it don't turn back
We are so scared of a fade to black
That we'll cuss and we'll pull
and we'll do anything to be free
Not even poets know how I feel....
The second song continues, with a very similar Ani-esque rhythm guitar and her rap-like, hyper-rhyming lyrical style:
What good is a syllable
wish this disease was killable
nothing you can say
can change the way
the hole remains unfillable
the burden unshakeable
soul is up there without a net
are we having fun yet
we are looking for a pure state of mind
but who has the time?
There are griefs and troubles and fears, holes and emptinesses all through this album. But while Ani is always concrete about her beefs, Mulvey's outpourings of loss and anger center on an un-nameable love-wound and a spiritual void where God used to be before Freud and Nietzsche killed him. At least in these two songs, the vehemence of these feelings comes at least partly from his struggle for a language sufficient to express them. This makes for some great poetry, but it also makes the listener long for one concrete story, one real sorrow to empathize with.
David Goodrich shares songwriting credit on all but two songs (another is a cover of the 1937 Tin Pan Alley classic, "You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams," which stands out like a moment of peace and respite in all the emotional chaos). Goodrich also both plays on the album and produces it, and it makes me wonder why the album isn't labeled as a joint project instead of a solo effort. I have to say I'm troubled by this recent trend in the folk world where full creative partners are not given full credit: Karen Savoca teams with wizard guitarist Peter Heitzman, Gillian Welch teams with David Rawlings, and now Goodrich stands nearly 50-50 with Mulvey. Yet each star takes 100% of the billing. This is a separate issue from the normal array of talent that goes into any recording project, in this case a tight-knit group of venerable back-up musicians including Jennifer Kimball and Chris Smither. From what I can tell, this is as much Goodrich's album as it is Mulvey's.
Mulvey is a cross between Greg Brown and Ani DiFranco and appeals to both folk's old guard and young hip audiences. This album is definitely a post-modern approach to folk music; it deconstructs our idea of the solo singer-songwriter, of narrative, of the genre of folk/acoustic music. It sounds great and it's Mulvey at his best. -HB
Listen to or download an MP3 of "Bright Idea."