Out There

Michael Penn
MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident)
(57 Records/Epic Records)

Turns out it's possible to admire, even cherish an album without really liking it -- no, make that feeling it, deep within that unknowable place only music can reach. There's no escaping the effort that went into this album, the fourth from Michael Penn; you can practically hear Penn and his myriad collaborators struggle to make each note, each word, each silence so meaningful and precious. The opening track alone, "Lucky One," reverberates like a just-rung bell, embracing and condensing the whole history of pop into a four-minute symphony until it sounds as though someone has melted down a thousand jukeboxes into one digital backfire. From the Beatles to the Beach Boys, from Elvis Costello to Matthew Sweet, from Bacharach to R.E.M., from A to Z and back again, nothing's spared or sacrificed in the making of The Great American Single. It could have been a hit -- maybe a decade ago, more likely in 1965. But not now. It's too passé, too much of too many yesterdays ago -- even with its expiration-date reference to "here comes the millennium."

After listening to "Lucky One" a handful of times, I am convinced it will always remain one of those songs you play for friends while asking them, "Who does this sound like to you?" Their responses, most certainly, will always vary -- even if they all begin with, "Now, I know I've heard this before..." Like anything built upon the foundation of faded echoes, "Lucky One" sticks with you only until it stops playing, until its dramatic finale dims; once the song ends, so too does your desire ever to hear it again. (The same could not be said for his sole Top 20 single, 1990's immutable "No Myth.") And so goes the rest of MP4, a collection of more-than-competent gems whose polish blinds you to the fact that there's not an indelible moment contained herein.

Yes, some things strike you at first glance; such is the purpose of pop, its function -- to make you notice it, even if it's not deserving of indulgence. "Beautiful" is just that, a captivating swirl of acoustic guitar chimes and Mellotron mellowness; "Footdown" is a snaky bit of charm and cynicism; the closer "Bucket Brigade" is a baleful dash of Beatles melancholia (the likes of which wife Aimee Mann has made a critics'-darling career of). But in the end, Penn offers only more: whimpering songs about tragic love, unrequited love, elusive love, dying love. And his lyrics read like the ramblings of a Mad-Lib madman so proud of his twists and turns, even when they lead into a dead end. "You get thirsty while you wait, a demonstrator demonstrates / That you've run out of holy water, dude," he sings in "Beautiful." Seriously? Dude.

Robert Wilonsky


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