Those who love Jonathan Richman cite his wide-eyed naivete, his eternal youth, his winsome innocence, his ability to make childlike what is so adult, his talent for finding poetry in the banal and everyday. Appropriately, his detractors cite those same qualities as the reason they don't much care for him; they simply stopped buying the laughing-as-the-heart-is-breaking routine a long time ago, stopped finding his jokes funny, stopped finding the beauty in the irony (or maybe the irony in the beauty--life is too short to concentrate on his distinctions these days).
There is genuine genius in Richman's work, has been for going on a quarter of a century; "Pablo Picasso" and "Road Runner" are as timeless as Richman would like to believe he is himself, so silly and real are both songs. And every now and then, he will strike the familiar gold (1983's Jonathan Sings! is perfect throughout as The Modern Lovers was in 1971, when originally recorded). But weariness does not mix well with the eternal young, and with each subsequent album Richman moves one step further from songwriting and one step closer to shtick. Where he was once like Lou Reed without John Cale and heroin, Richman is now more like Tiny Tim (even sounds like him on "Let Her Go into the Darkness" from the new You Must Ask the Heart)--his affectations the very thing that define him, his delivery the raison d'etre instead of the words being delivered.
And the only thing worse than a singer impressed with the sound of his own voice is a singer who can't sing who's impressed with the sound of his own voice. JoJo's take on Tom Waits' "The Heart of Saturday Night"--not to mention "The Rose" and Sam Cooke's "Nothing Can Change This Love"--isn't just expectedly half-assed, half-rehearsed; nor is it some lightweight parody (after all, if you accept that excuse, then Richman's been a parody for 20 years--which would, come to think of it, explain that country album). Rather, Richman flattens everything in sight: the silly songs ("Vampire Girl," "Just Because I'm Irish"--a duet with "Saturday Night Live" regular Julia Sweeny) sound like the sweet ones, the Spanish ones like the English ones, the country ones like the city ones, the bad ones like the good ones.
Jonathan Richman performs May 26 at Poor David's Pub.