I would imagine singer and composer Rob Morsberger must be getting tired of reading all the comparisons that critics are so constantly making as they attempt to define and label him and his music for the audience who has yet to hear him. He is a “Tom Petty/Bob Dylan hybrid,” says one critic. He has the kind of “hyperliterate” style that “went out of style when Warren Zevon died,” says another. His latest is done with “an Elvis (Costello)-esque mix of wit and grit.” And that’s not all.
There’s Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, Robbie Robertson and a touch of Randy Newman. But if he is, he’s just going to have to live with it, because in each and every one of these comparisons there is much more than the proverbial granular truth.
Witness his latest and fourth CD, The Chronicle of a Literal Man, a compilation of 10 richly original compositions. They range from the anthemic title track to the lilting rhythms of “Stroke of Insight,” and from the introspective “Nebraska in Winter” to the rumbling passions of “Old Jolly Farm.” His lyrics are dense with allusion, metaphor and creative rhyming. He writes lyrics that will reward the kind of explicative analysis usually accorded to the finest of poets. Often, he seems to create so many voices not his own (to paraphrase one of those fine poets) to speak the speech, or more appropriately to sing the song (as in “Nebraska in Winter”). Moreover, he embeds his lyrics in tunes with melodies that will as often as not keep listeners humming.
Certainly his lyrics are literate; indeed they may be too literate. They are filled with references that will be meaningful to most listeners, only with some kind of gloss by way of album notes, ones that are not supplied with the CD, although all the lyrics are provided. While no doubt he isn’t writing for the typical pop audience, his lyrics tend towards the kind of idiosyncratic allusion that sends one to Google.
“Where is the Song” refers to an unnamed revolution in 1848. The speaker cries out from exile to a Natalia. In a recent interview, Morsberger says that the song is about a Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen. Of course, without his comment, I’m not sure how the audience is supposed to know that. “Old Jolly Farm,” the burial site of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, may be more identifiable to some.
“Modestine,” it turns out is the name of a donkey in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, which is certainly not among that author’s most well known works. “The Chronicle of a Literal Man” deals with the motion picture, Papillon, and morphs into a riff on McCarthyism and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
Is it necessary to understand all these allusions to enjoy the music? That is the question. While there is no question that understanding the lyrics adds much to the enjoyment of music, it is also true that musical success has never depended solely on the comprehension of the lyrics. We don’t have to understand what we are hearing to find it powerfully moving. Indeed, one might argue that not completely understanding the composer’s intentions allows the listener to read his own meanings into what he is hearing.
A case in point: before googling “Modestine,” I heard the line, “You’re my beast of burden.” My first thought was The Rolling Stones. At the end of the song come the lines, “You’re the queen /of my world/please don’t make an ass of me/modestine.” What I heard was a love song. The fact that it later turns out that it’s a love song to an ass, only adds to the irony.
Morsberger’s metaphors and similes remind me of nothing so much as the conceits of the 17th century metaphysical poets like John Donne and George Herbert. Depression, “the density of sadness,” is “just like eating a stone.” Life should not be like “an independent movie,” a speaker in the song of the same name advises. Another song tells a friend complaining about his life: “If your life is God’s idea of a sick joke/at least it’s a joke he’s playing on you.”
He likes creative rhymes. For instance, “them or us/Spartacus,” “Steve McQueen/final scene,” and “pay your debt/cigarette” are all in the title song. Scattered through the others are rhymes you might not ordinarily expect, such as “of vision/derision,” “defective/perspective,” “alter/falter,” and “a while/exile.” He also gets some nice effects with off-rhymes.
I should note that he tends to shy away from these kinds of poetic indulgences, which focus more on wit than sincerity when he is looking for something more emotionally charged, as in “Old Jolly Farm” and “Nebraska in Winter.” These are written in a much more straightforward manner.
Morsberger does the lead vocals and plays keyboards. Robin Gould is on the drums, Jon Herington, electric and acoustic guitars, and Paul Ossola plays electric and upright base. Listen to them wail at the end of “You Don’t Get It,” the last of the album’s songs. Jim Hynes does some nice work on the flugelhorn, as on the syncopated rhythms of “Modestine.”
If you miss the late Warren Zevon, are you’re looking for some of that Costello-esque wit, or if Tom Waits, Bob Dylan or Rufus Wainwright is your thing, give Rob Morsberger a listen. You won’t regret it.