Listen to this track by former Everything But The Girl vocalist, singer-songwriter, and columnist Tracey Thorn. It’s “Oh! The Divorces”, the lead track off of her 2010 solo record Love And Its Opposite. That record was the second release of the century from Thorn, preceded by 2007’s Out Of The Woods, and representative of a new phase in her career as a singer and songwriter.
By this time, she’d spent a decade raising her kids with her partner Ben Watt, also formerly of EBTG and an active solo artist in his own right. She’d given up touring as a live performer by 2000, a part of her career that she’d never really enjoyed fully, and embraced a new avenue of expression through her regular column Off The Record in The New Statesman and as a writer of books. Yet her pursuits as a singer remained. And what a singer! For an artist known for her appealingly unadorned voice, I think a mistake that’s easily made with Thorn is to link her songwriting to that same approach, to assume that she’s always telling her own literal story when she sings.
This dynamic plays into an area that has forever fascinated and befuddled many a music writer, critic, and casual listener; the difference between what a singer expresses in song, and what that same singer really thinks, feels, and directly experiences in their private lives. With this tune, there are a number of elements to throw us off of the trail between the meaning of the song, and its effects on us as listeners.
Listen to this track by former Holly and one-third of Crosby, Stills & (yes) Nash, Graham Nash. It’s “I Used To Be A King”, a key track from his first and arguably best solo record, Songs For Beginners from 1971.
By then, maybe the term “beginner” wasn’t pertinent to Nash. True, this was Nash’s first foray as a solo artist, transplanted from Manchester to sunny California after having left his band The Hollies in the late sixties. But by this time, he was well established as a native of SoCal, and no stranger to the scene. He was riding pretty high with CSNY, with this record being his next project after the mighty Deja Vu completely solidified the success of the band. Also, Nash had a lot of help on this record from musicians who weren’t exactly babes in the woods either, with members of the Grateful Dead, Traffic, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and a couple of his regular teammates in Neil Young and David Crosby pitching in.
So, what’s all this about “beginners”, then? Well, I suspect the answer to that question had less to do with musical proficiency, career experience, or the road scars that comes with all that. The fact was that by 1971, Nash was starting again for other more personal reasons. Read more
Listen to this track by former Dambuilders/Black Beetle/Antony & The Johnsons violinist and solo singer-songwriter Joan Wasser, AKA Joan As Police Woman. It’s “To Be Loved”, the first single from her 2008 album To Survive, her second release under the Joan As Policewoman name.
Launching her solo career with a self-referential moniker is very telling when ruminating on the subject of survival. The “police woman” reference is to Angie Dickinson, and the 1970s TV series Police Woman that was on when Wasser was a child. The show was about a tough and sexy police officer who happened to be a woman in a man’s traditional field. Parallels can be drawn to the music industry, even today.
This song reveals Wasser’s feel for classic soul and her langourous jazz influence that has provoked vocal comparisons to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. What it also reveals of course is the highly personal nature of her songwriting, particularly around the subjects of love and its relationship to loss. The challenge with personal songwriting in the end is to find universal threads that connect artist to audience. So, how does Wasser manage that balance between the personal and the universal here? Read more
Listen to this track by Los Feliz-based musical concern Eels as led by E, AKA Mark Oliver Everett. It’s “Parallels”, a single as taken from 2014’s blatantly self-referential The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett. The song would also appear on the excellent 2015 double live album Eels Royal Albert Hall.
Coalescing in the mid-1990s, Eels music covers a gamut of styles from sixties-influenced indie-rock, to roots-rock, to chamber pop, to a brand of Americanized trip hop, scoring E modest cult status enough to make a career as a professional musician known for brutally honest Lennonesque confessional songs. “Parallels” is one of them, springing from flowing acoustic guitar arpeggios and accompanied by a keening lap steel, a foil for E’s charmingly rumpled and weary lead vocal.
Before his professional music career began, E had been a part of a household with another well-known name in limited circles; his father’s, physicist Hugh Everett III. Many years after his death, the elder Everett makes his way into the middle of this song by his son. Or, at least his theories of quantum mechanics do. Read more
Listen to this track by former Czars frontman and plain-spoken confessional singer-songwriter John Grant. It’s “GMF”, a sweeping pop vista of melodic delight that employs some fairly colourful metaphors having to do with mothers and the coital act. The song is taken from Grant’s 2013 record Pale Green Ghosts. Note: that’s Sinéad O’Connor on back-up vocals!
The song is chock full of musical ingredients that complement each other seamlessly. Grant adds touches of orchestral pop, progressive rock, and even Beatlesque pop into this song that is the seeming portrait of a narcissist. In pop music, there are all kinds of central characters in songs that appear to be thoroughly repugnant characters who speak as if they are the hero of their stories. From Dion’s “The Wanderer”, to The Smiths'”Bigmouth Strikes Again”, to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again”, unpleasant and cruel acts as casually delivered by characters of questionable motives and justifications are practically a pop staple.
This song is among the best of those for many reasons. But, one big one is this: this character is not a monster, but rather a real person in pain, hinting that what is monstrous is the circumstance that has brought him to where he is as we find him in this song. Read more
Listen to this track by three-part harmony supergroup CSN, or rather Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and epic length slab of prime ’60s folk rock as taken from the then newly formed band on their self-titled debut record released in the spring of 1969.
The group formed after the three principles David Crosby late of the Byrds, Stephen Stills formerly of Buffalo Springfield, and ex-member of British Invasion favourites The Hollies, Graham Nash met at a party. Crosby and Stills had performed a tune together, and Nash who had been a part of a band who specialized in harmony singing joined in. And the magic happened! I’m sure even they were astounded at the results which have since been celebrated for nearly fifty years.
And this song was their flag in the sand as a statement that would distinguish them even from their work in the bands from which they had come. And along with that, they would usher in a new era for popular music, too. And how would they do that? Read more
Listen to this song by singer-songwriting colossus, and confessional style architect Joni Mitchell. It’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, a deep cut from her essential 1971 Blue album. The record as a whole touches on the breakdown of relationships, the personal journeys both geographical and spiritual that result, and the conclusions one can come to about identity after the smoke has cleared.
This particular tune is concerned with a meeting between former friends, or lovers, and how each one has or has not changed since they last saw each other. There are streaks of melancholy, and of cynicism held in balance with idealism here that make it a compelling tale to be observed from afar, much in the way you would while reading a short story, or watching a scene in a movie.
The song is thought to be based on Mitchell’s relationship with former husband Chuck Mitchell, from whom she takes her professional last name. In this, it’s in good company on a record that certainly reveals its writer, helping to build her reputation as an artist who typified a “confessional” style of songwriting. Yet despite a lot of personal content, there are deeper themes that pass from a tale specific to the life of its writer, and sail into the realm of the universal, and very often into the life of the listener, too. Read more