By Jim Schutze
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Jonathan Richman's musical importance is generally understated, despite his having released nearly two dozen records over the past three decades.
While he has been heralded as something like the godfather of offbeat singer-songwriting, it's easy for his reported eccentricities (such as his Luddite refusal to be interviewed by anyone associated with the Internet, or communicating in third-person Tarzan speech during performances) to eclipse his resilience as a songwriter. And yet, he has greatly changed the landscape of songwriting—putting as much brains as laughter back into punk-derived music.
Although Richman is approaching 60, his material remains resolutely youthful and intelligently primitive. He has surpassed his contemporaries (close friends and collaborators over the years include Gram Parsons and members of the Real Kids and Talking Heads) in pure talent and energy.
One possible reason for this longevity is his wise abstinence from the drugs that hanged his generation's talents (see "I'm Straight," in which he describes his preference for the hip-to-be-square lifestyle). But Richman also developed a unique style early on, one that embraced punk while cultivating bridges into the blues, doo-wop, folk and the original rock 'n' roll sounds of his predecessors. His genre-winding journey—from the proto-punk Modern Lovers debut, through albums like Jonathan Goes Country! and the Spanish-language Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocinar!—has delved into different styles but remains totally Richman: simple, nasal and wry.
Richman's current disc, Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild, continues to mine a distinctly outsider style. For one, it was conceived and recorded in Holland, Spain, Germany and San Francisco. This international approach is reflected through his drift into French and Spanish on two tracks (the liner notes declare that although he isn't completely fluent, he isn't afraid of being laughed at—and indeed, his Spanish-speaking impression of English on "Es Como El Pan" warrants a smirk). Additionally, his construction of two "twin" tracks on the disc, "The Lovers Are Here and They're Full of Sweat," and "Le Printemps des Amoureux Est Venu," allow Richman to explore different meanings for one song. "When We Refuse to Suffer" also appears twice on the disc, further exhibiting his skill at reworking melodies, amplification and accents (the second version features an electric guitar and a more satirical delivery). Richman makes it seem as if he could easily and infinitely rearrange his own tracks—simply by varying language, instrumentation and bare recording techniques, with each version as catchy as the last.
Because Her Beauty's new version of "Old World" similarly allows Richman to tweak himself. Here he's re-examining his back catalog, updating a decades-old Modern Lovers song. Another oldie but goodie, Leonard Cohen's "Here It Is," becomes distinctly Richman as he contextualizes another icon's work. Richman's take blends raw acoustic guitar, shaker-percussion and his earnest vocal tremble.
As with his music, Richman's lyrical talent is anchored in keeping things deceptively simple. On Because Her Beauty, that songwriting philosophy translates into a comment on modern social norms. The declarative "When We Refuse to Suffer" imparts that it's the little inconveniences—sadness, hot weather and other first-world sufferings—that truly shape us as people: "When we refuse to suffer, that is when the Prozac wins/When we refuse to suffer, that is when the air conditioning has won!" he sings. Similarly, he frankly praises the everyday in "The Lovers Are Here and They're Full of Sweat," where he reasons, "They are here and full of sweat, well, what do you expect?/They just got off the bus." You can easily visualize a miffed tourist couple bombarded by a band of smelly college kids, and yet through Richman's succinct storytelling, you can't help but sympathize with the lovers. Richman's knack for dissecting life's details is once again effortlessly integrated into a more general comment on social interactions.
Richman is a rare performer who continues to grow within a framework of his own construction. Whether he's singing in his native language or a clumsily adopted tongue, and regardless of the genre he's dabbling in, he remains a truly singular act.
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