When two musicians decide to take a set of metaphorically complex poems, orchestrate them for two voices, piano, and string quartet, and model them on 19th century song cycles, they can’t be expecting much in the way of popular success. That’s unfortunate, because if the musicians are Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts and Rob Morsberger, whose The Chronicle of a Literal Man was one of the critical highlights of 2010, and the song cycle is their newly released Midnight Garden, it merits all the success—popular, critical, and otherwise—it can garner.
As Morsberger tells it in a recent publicity release, after surgery for a terminal brain tumor when he hoped to have enough time left to him to complete the album he was working on, he not only managed that album, but in a burst of creative productivity produced two others as well. Midnight Garden was the second of these. He had worked with Roberts before and, looking for a project that could be completed quickly, he says, “Brad Roberts had a pile of lyrics and we decided I would create a latter day song cycle with some 19th century models: Schubert, of course, with a nod to Stephen Foster and Gilbert and Sullivan.” What they came up with, he calls, “an interesting hybrid, one part classical music, but definitely still connecting to the pop world.”
A hybrid it is, for sure. Measured against something like a Schubert art song, the connection to the “pop world” is dominant. On the other hand, measured against the typical pop tune they demonstrate a daunting classical sensibility. And that says nothing about Roberts’ challenging lyrics where, behind one curtain, what you find is another. You’re warned about the danger of jumping from the edge, but jump anyway, where “there’s nothing like a heart of stone to help one through one’s misery.” These are not the moon-in-June lyrics that as often as not are the stuff of the pop world.
The album’s 12 songs run the gamut from music hall syncopation and waltz to dirge-like secular hymns. If there is something that binds them together in a cycle, it would seem to be in the darkness of their world vision. It is a darkness that pervades both the melody and lyrics of songs like “The Edge” and “Venus Flytrap.” Even in songs like “Don’t Mistake My Charity” and “Faith Nor Doubt,” the simple beauty of the melodies creates an almost postmodern ironic contrast to the bleakness of the lyrics. Morsberger and Roberts have the kinds of voices that reek with the dark drama the music demands. The album is an almost perfect blend of singers and material.
This is not background music, these are songs that repay careful listening. It starts right from the beginning with “He Heard a Melody,” a song that seems to indicate there is something accidental about the creative process. It follows through right to the end when “all the songs have been written,” even if “there’s nothing new under the sun” the artist keeps trying. “All the Songs Have Been Written” ends in metaphor and mournful strings. Morsberger calls it an “epitaph” for the cycle.
You can call it a song cycle. You can call it a concept album. Call it classical music. Call it pop. Whatever you decide, the one thing you must absolutely call Midnight Garden is art.