Interesting, the way that the evolution of a musical career can display things about an artist’s work that might not have become clear had the trajectory been different. Why Marshall Crenshaw no longer tours with a full rock band, I don’t know, but I saw a performance of his in a two guitar-plus-drums combo back in the summer of 2006 that was a revelation. A few nights ago, I saw him play about 75 minutes worth of music without any backup at all, and the revelation was confirmed. This man can write songs and play guitar with the best of them.
But let’s start with the man’s history and what, I imagine, will be his legacy: great, three-minute pop songs of the kind that I thought had died with the 1960s. His greatest hits compilation, This is Easy (2000), is dominated by songs from his first two albums, which contain song after song that are passionately sung, perfectly arranged, and almost maddeningly catchy. A few of them are also noticeably good songs. The lyrics and melodies to “Cynical Girl,” “There She Goes Again,” and “Whenever You’re On My Mind” are profound in the simplest way and simple in the most profound way, and each of those songs has been a repeat player on my internal stereo at different times over the past few years. His biggest commercial hit song, “Someday, Someway,” is less impressive as a song, but it’s still great pop. And, for people who know anything about Marshall Crenshaw, for people who remember him during his hit-making days, that’s that: a constructor of superb pop music.
Okay. But what Denise and I saw a few nights ago in Brooklyn revealed other things: great songs, expressive and surprisingly nuanced singing, an upbeat and quirky stage presence, and some really excellent guitar playing. “There She Goes Again” came first, and it is one of my favorites. At first, there was something slightly off-putting about the lack of precision in the way that his songs ran up against the guitar playing. But my ears adjusted quickly, as I began to hear the way he’d adjusted to the challenges of performing solo, and I began listening to the lyrics in a way I hadn’t before. “I’ll be stronger when she's off my mind / I hope she finds what she's been trying to find / And as life goes on and time goes by / Will her heart ever be satisfied?” Simply stated and simultaneously self-affirming, empathetic, and wondering. There is a real innocence to some of Marshall Crenshaw’s songs, as he expresses good-natured confusion about the opposite sex. By the same taken, his later songs express a mature, experienced take on older, more experienced love. “Alone in a Room,” one of Denise’s favorites from the other night, feels lived-in.
Anyway, the performance at BAMCafé touched on material from each part of the man’s career. The old ones included “There She Goes Again,” “Cynical Girl,” “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” “Mary Anne,” “Someday, Someway,” and “Something’s Gonna Happen.” He played “Fantastic Planet of Love,” “Dime a Dozen Guy,” “Television Light,” “2541,” and, my most favorite song of his, “What Do You Dream Of” from his ‘90s albums. That last one expresses an intimate sentiment so beautifully that, when I heard it for the first time, back in the summer of 2006, I actually gasped aloud with pleasure when the refrain began.
I'll leave it at that. I hope to catch him again someday.