Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Michael McDermott - Hit Me Back

Michael McDermott - Hit Me Back
Rock Ridge Music
Four stars

Michael McDermott's music, like Springsteen's and Van Morrison's, helped me to find a part of myself that wasn't lost, as I had feared, but only misplaced. That's why we love the ones who are really good at it, I think: because they give us back ourselves, all dusted and shined up, and they do it with a smile....Michael McDermott is one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock and roll talent of the last 20 years."

-Stephen King

In the 21 years since the release of Michael McDermott’s debut (1991’s 620 W. Surf), Stephen King has always remained one of the singer/songwriter’s biggest fans, quoting lyrics in his books or offering testimonials like the above excerpt for the liner notes of McDermott’s albums. But while King was always McDermott’s most noted champion, he was never his only one. Upon the release of 620 W. Surf, many critics named McDermott as the next in a long line of legendary songwriters, the heir apparent to Springsteen, Dylan, or Van Morrison. As is clear now, though, history told a much different tale. The hype went to McDermott’s head: he was only 22-years old, a young, naive, free spirit with no idea of how to reconcile his future path with his sudden dream-come-true situation. He responded to that predicament by going off the rails, turning to drugs and alcohol, partying in a fast-lane, out of control manner, and scaring the hell out of the people closest to him.

One of those people was A&R man Brian Koppelman, who went on to become a noted Hollywood screenwriter and producer, and Koppeman’s first film, the 1998 poker cult-classic Rounders, carried a lot of this experiences with McDermott within its narrative. Matt Damon’s gambling protagonist actually shared the songwriter’s stage name (they call him “Mike” in the movie), while Edward Norton’s character, an out-of-luck ex-con with big debts to pay, carried the surname Murphy, McDermott’s actual birthright. Though they gave their hero his name, Koppelman and screenwriting partner David Levien both admitted that McDermott aligned more with the Murphy character, a notorious screw-up who just can’t seem to catch a break. And things went like that for a long time, McDermott compromising his talent to drink his way to the bottom of a bottle after every show, or colliding with law enforcement with the 2002 cocaine bust that befell him on the way to see a Wallflowers show.

It wasn’t until midway through the decade that McDermott finally began to find his redemption. He found it in love (he was married in 2009 and now has a daughter) and in Italy, where he discovered that his music had reached a much greater audience than it ever did in the states. 2009’s fantastic Hey La Hey showed off a lot of that redemption, shedding the scars of McDermott’s scorched past and pledging resilience and devotion in its best songs. The follow-up isn’t quite as consistently solid, but it has more highlights and its best tracks are among the best things McDermott has written, period; a fair trade-off, I’d say.

Past its hooky opener and title track (where McDermott addresses his alcoholism through an instantly infectious chorus) Hit Me Back spends a few ponderous, sluggish tracks (“Let it Go,” “The Prettiest Girl in the World”) getting started, but once the record does settle upon the right path, it’s a wall of hits right to the end. The haunting “Dreams About Trains” kicks off an incredibly strong mid-section, carried along by ghostly back-up vocals and striking lyrical portraits that, in McDermott’s words, evoke “Robert Frost, Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Kennedy, The Blues Brothers, and the fact that [he’s] always lived near train tracks,” all in just over five minutes. The result is a masterfully dense piece of songwriting, with enough nuances and beautiful textures to spend hours dissecting; luckily, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The shattering “Ever After” finds McDermott ruminating on the loss of his mother, who passed away shortly before the recording of Hit Me Back. “The further we went on, I knew something was wrong, I felt it in my gut/I thought Pandora was joking when she said some doors that open won’t ever shut/Like a lion in a cage, my hands are fists of rage,” McDermott sings in the song’s second verse, his anger, grief, confusion, and regret boiling just below the surface. “Scars From Another Life” is no less viscerally powerful, a skyscraping, Springsteenian power ballad whose spacious, reverb-soaked production and floating piano arpeggios immediately position it as the album’s centerpiece cut. McDermott is challenging his demons here, carrying on the battle he was waging on Hey La Hey (and even referencing that album’s title in the song’s emotional refrain), and the result is an uplifting, redemptive, and life-affirming piece of music; there haven’t been more than a handful of better songs written this year.

“She’s Gonna Kill Me” is a pop-laced rocker in the same vein as the title track, while gorgeous piano ballad “Is There a Kiss Left on Your Lips” is its companion. Both songs deal with McDermott’s adjustment to married life, his tendency for staying out late, and the guilt he feels in sneaking back into the house long after everyone else has gone to sleep. The former is all-out fun, turning a situation many of us are familiar with into a rootsy sing-along surrounded by blazing guitars; the latter is even better, a buoyant arrangement built around the perfect poetry that McDermott wrote on his bathroom wall following one of those guilty homecomings. Elsewhere, “Deal with the Devil” is a sustained scorcher, a dark, haunting, and atmospheric slice of Americana that reprises many of Hit Me Back’s major themes (McDermott’s struggle with past crises, his coming-to-terms with his mother’s passing) over a barely repressed electric guitar. And album-highlight “The Silent Will Soon Be Singing” is a flawlessly structured acoustic number, almost Dylanesque in its execution, which recalls the more folky lilt of his last few records without sacrificing the deeply cohesive feel of this one.

The closing duo, composed of the string-soaked “Where the River Meets the Sea” and the appropriately blissful “Italy,” conclude the album in strong fashion. The former feels almost liturgical, graced with a traditional-feeling piano line, a beautiful female backing vocal, and McDermott’s most poignant and passionate delivery on the disc; it’s hardly surprising that the song served as McDermott’s eulogy for his late mother. The latter encompasses every ounce of redemption that McDermott found in Italy, a country that he says changed the course of his life. The harmonica intro evokes Nebraska-era Springsteen, but the lyrical and melodic structures are more reminiscent of Woodie Guthrie, a simplistic sensibility that turns the closer into a “This Land is Your Land” for a new age.

For many listeners, both of these songs (and indeed, this entire record) will drown in excessive sentiment and in classicist songwriting ideals that we’ve all heard before. But McDermott pours every ounce of himself into these songs, tearing down the walls between himself and his audience and cultivating a connection that is sometimes uncomfortable in its intimacy (songs like “Ever After” hit almost too close to home), but which is always striking in its power. These songs left an indelible mark upon me, their moods and feelings refusing to leave even as their final notes drifted away to nothingness, McDermott’s struggles and triumphs becoming my own.

Too few people will ever hear Hit Me Back, but Stephen King was right: McDermott is one of those songwriters whose music is meant to heal you, and there are only a few guys playing the game these days who just naturally have that power. Springsteen has it, for sure; Van Morrison certainly had it, though I haven’t yet heard his new album to confirm that he still does; modern favorites of mine, guys like Will Hoge, Chad Perrone, and Butch Walker (at his most confessional), definitely have it as well. Some will always be uncomfortable with songwriters like these: they will mock them for their earnestness and write them off for not reinventing the wheel, but those people aren’t really listening closely enough. For me, the best songwriters are the ones who, as King says, “give us back ourselves,” the ones who can form the sort of honest, intimate connection with their audience that McDermott forms so easily here, the ones with the ability to write songs that feel positively vital, that get under my skin and change me, even in the smallest way. McDermott may not have fame, but he has the rest of the act down in spades, and Hit Me Back, opening stumbles and all, is arguably his most profound statement to date.

Taylor Swift - Red

 Taylor Swift - Red
Big Machine Records, 2012
Four stars

Of the biggest players in today’s pop music world, you can probably count the ones bigger than Taylor Swift on one hand. Amidst an ailing music industry and the ever-threatening death of the album format, Swift still moved over a million copies of her third record, 2010’s Speak Now, in a single week. Only one album has replicated that feat since (Lady Gaga’s Born This Way), and even then, the achievement was rendered suspect due to the $0.99 Amazon promotional deal that accounted for 430,000 of its sales. Indeed, in the six years since her first album, Swift has transformed herself into one of the most recognizable and polarizing presences on the radio waves, fueling her diarist confessionals with pristine melodies and full-bodied arrangements. For many (myself included), Swift has become the go-to example of pop music at its best, her honest songwriting and her penchant for towering choruses qualities that almost every other artist would kill to have. For others, her constant use of the “love-gone-wrong” trope is an immediate turn-off, the sign of a spoiled, “woe-is-me” rich girl who exploits her tabloid relationships, turns them into songwriting fodder and makes a truckload of cash in the process.

Obviously, listeners will hear what they want, but for me, Taylor’s manner of heart-on-the-sleeve conviction is one of her greatest strengths. In an age of overly-computerized poppers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha, Taylor’s honesty and candor imbues her music with a girl-next-door sensibility that is nothing short of refreshing. Furthermore, her country music roots allow her to implement traditional textures more often than most of her contemporaries, and even as she has moved away from those roots, Taylor’s reliance on organic instrumentation and classic country, pop and rock ‘n’ roll influences clearly leave her at the top of the pack…or at very least, next to her similarly-minded British counterpart, Adele.

Swift’s fourth record, simply titled Red, continues all of this while effortlessly adding more nuance into the equation, taking the same kind of genre-hopping mentality that defined Speak Now, but refining and grounding it in her most mature and dynamic set of songs to date. At 16 tracks and 75 minutes in length, this album is behemoth that could have done with some liberal trimming, but even as is, there are no obvious miss-steps or throwaways here. Right from the U2-bound arena rock of “State of Grace,” which opens the album in bombastic and triumphant fashion, Red is very obviously the work of a more grown-up Taylor Swift. She still has her moments of childishness here and there, whether she’s throwing a cell phone at her boyfriend’s head on the infectious, should-have-been b-side “Stay Stay Stay,” or joyfully bidding farewell to yet another former flame on the number-one smash “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together” (complete with a Max Martin-approved hook and a charismatic spoken-word interlude). But most of the time, Taylor forsakes shameless name-dropping and self-victimization in favor of gleeful pop bliss or heartfelt introspection; in both cases, she’s thoroughly in her element.

The album’s most immediate standout track is also its longest. “All Too Well” is a gorgeous and wistful ballad, drenched in the kind of rootsy tradition that defined the best cuts on both Fearless and Speak Now, but taking it to another level with the best songwriting Swift has ever put on record. Rather than focusing solely on break-up fireworks like much of her earlier material, “All Too Well” charts the entire course of a relationship, from the euphoric early days of spending Thanksgiving with her new boyfriend’s family, to the nostalgic glances back after the whole thing has gone up in flames. The idea isn’t new, but the way Taylor approaches it here is undoubtedly effective, imbuing the lovely autumnal backdrop with relatable specificity that hits straight home. “Here we are again in the middle of the night/We’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light/Up the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well,” Taylor sings, transporting herself (and her audience) back to a relationship whose memories still feel fresh. That sense of thinly-veiled recollection, of fondly remembered love affairs that, for whatever reason, had to end, informs the majority of the songs on Red. Make no mistake, this could easily be labeled as a break-up album, a classification that essentially fits each album Swift has made thus far. The difference this time around is that Swift doesn’t solely bask in the swells of her own romantic disasters: this is a record of ups and downs, ebb and tide, triumph and tragedy, and for probably the first time, we’re not always sure if Swift is singing about herself.

The sobering “The Last Time” is another break-up ballad, this time playing out between intertwining male (Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody) and female voices. Throughout the song, it often feels like Swift is the supporting act, with everything from the melody to the wall of guitars to the vocal distribution tilting towards Lightbody’s wheelhouse. That disconnect hints at the ambiguous perspective of the piece, at the question of whether Taylor is actually the narrator or if she has adopted the situation of another. Likely, the song is the album’s most obvious rumination on the demise of the marriage between Swift’s mother and father, who separated this past spring. “Put my name at the top of your list,” Lightbody and Swift demand in turn, questioning just how much of themselves Swift’s parents poured into their daughter’s career and whether that skewed distribution of efforts and affection may have caused their relationship to implode. The feeling is similar on “I Almost Do” and “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” a pair of sparse acoustic ballads that assist the album’s central themes (those of regret and longing, heartbreak and hope) in moving to the forefront.

But while Red spends a fair amount of its runtime situated in the lower end of the tempo spectrum, it often thrives best within moments of pure pop sensibility. The title track morphs heartbreak into a simile-loaded slice of pop perfection, while the dubstep-injected “I Knew You Were Trouble” is one of many prospective chart-toppers at play here. The beat-driven stomp of “Holy Ground” is a modern-pop take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands,” a tear-down-the-walls anthem that ranks as one of the most powerful and resilient songs ever written (and not a bad standard to be compared to); Taylor’s version should be Red’s  penultimate cut. That position goes instead to the neon-drenched “Starlight,” whose luminescent opening is almost tailor-made (pun intended) for some fantastical beauty product commercial. Remarkably, that indulgence works, not only because Taylor resides in a genre where commercial connections don’t ring utterly false, but also because she’s still pretty damn good at playing the princess.

And pop princess she is, especially on “22,” which is destined to be her biggest hit to date. Fans of Swift’s country roots will likely shake their head at the redneck-Ke$ha opening, but once the song opens up into a wall of synthesizers and settles into its indelible hook, it’s almost impossible not to shout along. The song’s youthful energy and “throw-away-the-obligations” mentality will make it an essential cut for many a college party in the coming months and that association is absolutely justified. Almost equally addictive is the Butch Walker-produced “Everything Has Changed,” a simple folk-pop song taken to the next level by a hip-hop-ready beat and titanic production values. Swift and British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeren serenade each other, their voices blending in a sweet valentine of a song that welcomingly indicates light at the end of the tunnel for what is, on the whole, a pervasively sad record.

Pictures with Bruce AND Butch? Good deal.
Fittingly, the full daybreak comes on the album’s final track: “Begin Again” sounds like classic singer-songwriter fare, something that Carole King or Joni Mitchell (whose influence extends to every corner of Red) might have put on a record in the 1970s. A classy James Taylor reference only enhances the vintage feel, but at the end of the day, it’s Swift’s growth as an artist that allows her to sell the song (and in connection, the album) so effectively. When “Begin Again” hits its bridge and Taylor delivers the climactic lines (“And we walked down the block to my car and I almost brought him up/But you start to talk about the movies that your family watches/Every single Christmas, and I won’t talk about that/For the first time, what’s past is past”), it’s the mark of a songwriter who has finally grown up and learned to let the bad things go, and it’s because of this maturation that Red is ultimately an uplifting record. Despite the trials and tribulations she runs into along the way, Swift realizes that there’s always a lesson to be learned, that the pain is all a part of growing up and becoming the people we were meant to be, and that maturation is an exciting one. People don’t pour this much of themselves into strict pop records anymore, something that would make Red notable even if it were a relatively one-note affair. That the album covers half a dozen genres without ever sacrificing flow, thematic integrity or pure pop ecstasy makes it not only the best album of Swift’s budding career, but the best mainstream pop record we are likely to hear in 2012; here’s hoping that Swift just keeps getting better.