Fresh Cuts: Jonathan Richman
Once upon a time Jonathan Richman was a Velvet Underground groupie. He followed the band everywhere and idolized their lead singer, Lou Reed. When Jonathan leapt from fandom to semi-stardom with his own band’s first record, The Modern Lovers (released in 1976 on the Beserkley label and spottily distributed by Playboy Records), his music echoed the Underground with ringing guitars and intense nasal vocals. This first album stands today as a modern classic, and members of the original Modern Lovers have gone on to key the successes of the more illustrious Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison) and Cars (David Robinson).
In his four albums since, Jonathan has forsaken his original sound while progressively regressing to childhood. The most recent of these four, entitled Back in Your Life, is by far the most infantile, and while the previous three LP’s utilized regression to an artistically positive end this disc is generally incohesive and directionless. Bluntly if you didn’t enjoy 1977’s Rock ’n Roll with the Modern Lovers (Richman’s previous studio album) don’t even touch Back in Your Life.
The first thing to stand out from Back in Your Life is the cover art, which features a stunningly awful self-portrait of Richman strumming his heart-studded guitar. The album package thus gives us fair warning that Richman will not at all take himself seriously on this record. (Well, we were hardly expecting him to.) While on previous LPs his childlike vision was directed at material perception, Back in Your Life is more personal and more (no, I’m not kidding) psychological.
However, Richman’s product has degenerated to the level of novelty, and so has only surface effect. The album’s best track, “Affection,” is so good because it is the only of the seven originals on which Richman perfects his warped self-vision—he croons: “Now you guys you all know that your friend Jonathan likes to eat food a lot / Yes, and I like to do other things I like to run around and jump....” Lyrics such as these, along with the melodies—which have melted along with Richman’s mind—make one sure that the next album will feature Jonathan strumming monochordic fragments while gurgling and goo-gooing out of tune.
As for this disc, most of the inclusions have no reason for existence. For example, I have no idea why “Emaline,” “Lydia,” and “I Hear You Calling” (all non-originals) appear here except maybe (being the last three cuts) to provide challenge for one to listen to the entire record straight through, or maybe they’re included to pad the album out to its lavish thirty-two minutes.
Maybe Jonathan twasn’t cut out to be a latter-day Lou Reed, but he’s certainly sincere enough to produce better than the pointless Back in Your Life. And what hurts most (after the novelty has worn thin and you stop laughing) is that despite his sincerity, Jonathan Richman is rapidly moving himself out of the realm of the listenable.
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First published in the alternative weekly Fresh Fruit (May 9, 1979)