Another in a Series . . .
There was so much wailing and gnashing of music critic teeth when Marshall Crenshaw’s 1983 Album Field Day was released that you half expected some kind of Lou Reed-style Metal Machine Music, but with, you know, a good Power Pop New-Wave beat you could dance to. Oh sure, according to the bylaws of the sophomore backlash, the critics were mandated to dislike it anyway–but to have the master of atmosphere Steve Lillywhite produce Crenshaw’s crisp, clean-sounding songs? Why, it was a slap in the face, an unpardonable sin the likes of such had not been seen since Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love!
Crenshaw’s self-titled debut LP the previous year was one of straightforward skinny-tie simplicity, with Costello-like melodic hooks galore wrapped around some variously witty and woebegone lyrics of the wishfully thinking and wishy-washy sort: “It’s a sad situation,” Crenshaw laments. “Someday, someway/ Maybe I’ll understand you,” he contends, unconvincingly. Early on, Crenshaw’s “lookin’ for a cynical girl” while in the last song, still stuck in starry-eyed rut, he’s off and running again, lookin’ for a “brand new lover.” If only he could find a cynical new lover, someone he could understand, someday, someway.
But second verse, same as the first?: Like Costello again, there was nothing in Crenshaw’s personality or work ethic that suggested he was a one-trick pony who would, or would be inclined to, offer a play-it-safe rehashing when it came to his next release. After all, this was a musical renaissance man who, in addition to writing songs for artists as diverse as the Gin Blossoms and Bette Midler, was versatile and adventurous enough to tour with the road company of Beatlemania as John Lennon, play Buddy Holly in the movie La Bamba, and write a book about Rock ‘n’ Roll movies–A-list, B-list, and just plain listless.
And so, when it came time to pick a producer for Field Day, the expect-the unexpected Crenshaw, throwing caution to the charts, went with the untried and true Lillywhite, who had produced U2, Ultravox, Morrissey, and Peter Gabriel, among others. But Crenshaw was right to go with someone who would craft a sound awash in resounding, resonant echo-laden impact. His songwriting had evolved to the point that he needed a big, unbridled production.
Field Day, then, sees sad sap Crenshaw as he’s got it figured out a bit. But only a little bit. The pervasive desperation from the earlier work has now turned into an evocative, deeply-rooted and moving romanticism, not always in victory, but not always in better-to-have-loved-and-lost rationalizations, either; A little direction and a little dejection, say, and plenty of hair-trigger awareness:
I hear something in the sounds that surround me
That only seem to remind me
That I’m lost and longing
For a different place and time.
I wanna be walking down the avenue
Tall buildings staring down on my and you
But all I have are pictures running through my mind.
Crenshaw’s practically wailing at this point–not banshee style, but enough to wake the neighbors and alarm anyone who’s heard the more subdued Marshall Crenshaw album. He’s seemingly drowning in a sea of Lillywhite’s tougher, more stirring production–the reverberation and boom, explosive snare and bass drum, determined, though, not to get pulled under the current. It’s an impassioned effect that is much more powerful than the shiny, happy charm of the first album, and reflects more the mixed turmoil of emotions, the give-and-take of resignation and renewal.
“I go on and think of the fate you’ve cast,” Crenshaw announces in one of the best songs, “Whenever You’re On My Mind.” It’s destiny or doom never fully pondered in the first album, but as explored in Field Day, fate is measured and punctuated each beat of the way by Lillywhite, orchestrating literally, and figuratively. The forlorn and forthright up-front-and-center guitar twang of the mournful “All I Know Right Now” sets off the melancholy:
All I know right now
Is a lonely night ever deepening
Feels like its hanging over everything
Well I’m too blue to even cry
So lover, bye bye . . .
Regrets? He’s had a few, but then again . . . Contrast this distress with the celebratory spirit of the last song, “Hold On,” in which an insistent hope is poised against a musical backdrop of propulsive rhythm and increasingly echo-chambered reverberation, as if Lillywhite and Crenshaw were indeed having a field day in sustaining the elation: “. . . hold on tight forever/ To your life and love every night and day/ Hold on and don’t let it slip away.”
Not a sad situation at all. And not a cynical girl in sight.