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Vinyl Tap: Jules Shear – The Great Puzzle

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Once again I have forgotten my final destination
After chasing down too many suns
So tonight you and I bring
Desperation to this highway
And we’re not the only ones…

— “The Great Puzzle”

Like many new wave power poppers of the time, circa-‘70s’ Jules and the Polar Bears was akin to manic pop thrill, but solo Jules Shears makes for pop thrill minus much of the mania, though he retains the melodious richness and wit while corralling the quirks and frenzied wordplay into more cohesive musical structures and mature themes.

The noted songwriter of such hits as Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants,” and a Roger McGuinn cover (from Shears’ splinter group Reckless Sleepers’ Big Boss Sounds album) of the sublime “If We Never Meet Again” — on the former Byrds’ ’91 solo Back from Rio — takes a varied approach on 1992’s The Great Puzzle, from folk-rock to pure pop and ‘60s-style sonics to melancholic resonance.

The Great Puzzle opens with the sprightly jangle of “The Trap Door,” in which Shear — sounding less strangulated than he did in his skinny-tie days and markedly less like someone’s squeezing the life out of him – is telling a tale that despite all the scheming and dreaming, “bravery’s a conceit” and you’re failing and falling at the most inopportune time “down down down / Farther than you’ve ever been.”

Now that you’ve made a break for it, though, what follows on the album is the stellar standout title track, harmony-drenched and evocatively layered, making for a thought-provoking romanticized escapade, all while on-the-run.

I can’t wait to see world as it is
And how the whole perception
Turns from rule into exception
With the one tiny detail I miss

Like a maze where you could
take a thousand paths

Like all the questions that it does no good to ask
Some might accept it
Some might complain
It’s a great puzzle but you got to like games

So here’s a puzzle: One of the games Shears himself seems to like is to — despite the infectious, easy on the ear tunes — take a sad song and make it bitter. As harmonious and hummable as the upbeat “The Sad Sound of the Wind” is, there’s a constant reminder that it’s “blowing through the place you left your mark / The hole that’s in my heart.” And in the more downbeat but mesmerizing “Make Believe,” Shears sneers — ” before his going into his spoken word recrimination and emotive punctuated piano break — that “your smiles are all past tense.” But, after all, “Make Believe” is premised on the claim that “The skim milk of human kindness stinks / I flushed the whole thing down the sink / Now it’s just me and you.”

Well, maybe not for long — such milk-glass-is-half-empty misanthropy is not conducive to personal relationships, and besides, that wariness is sustained by the stark yet poignant closing number, “Bark,” which nevertheless maintains plenty of bite with its simple, unembellished acoustic guitar and vocal. The I-am-an-Island sense of alienation is expressively conveyed in halting and evocative lyrics surrounding notions of "blurry passion … put to sleep."

You don’t know how I feel
Up and down
Your backbone like studying a map
The intersection
Yeah I think I know just where it’s at
You kill me with kindness
And it’s all uncontrived
But you barely know me
Where I’m really alive…
‘Cause you don’t really know me

'Nuff said. Like the last puzzle piece perfectly placed.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch