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Monday, May 24, 2010

Cross Purposes

At first I wondered whether I disliked Matt Marks's new New Amsterdam Records record The Little Death: Vol. 1 because some of its most prominent features scored direct hits on my NOT MY THING button: conventional pop/musical theater vocals? NOT MY THING. Proggily rapid changes in musical texture? NOT MY THING. Put it together, and the record has this vibe of The Glee Kids Sing Fiery Furnaces, which = NOT MY THING squared.

But. Repeated listenings convinced me that the problem wasn't (entirely) me; it was the record. It's not just a song cycle, it's a concept album/rock opera—a form that's capable of some very exciting things, but which (like all opera) requires a delicate balance between forward narrative movement of a traditional drama and the lyrical suspension of time that we get in a pop song (or operatic setpiece). Actually, Marks's ability to create a convincing pop-music moment is pretty solid—the "Penetration Overture" is satisfying, Avalanches-style sample-driven chillout—but it's constantly being undermined by a half-baked dramatic sense.

Most obviously, the libretto is a problem. The story is pretty straightforward: boy meets girl; girl prefers Jesus; boy does something they'll all regret. They're even named "Boy" and "Girl," as if suggesting that these characters are archetypes, and their story, in some sense, fabulous or universal—but instead the characters seem flat and uninvolving, and the story sketched-in.

Pull in for a close-up, and the picture doesn't get much better; line-for-line, there's not much going on here. Here are the lyrics for the song "I Don't Have Any Fun," pasted in their entirety:

BOY: I don’t have any fun on my own
I don’t have any fun on my own
If you want to have fun fall in love with me
If you want to have fun fall in love with me

GIRL: I don’t want
I don’t want
I don’t want you (repeat)

BOY: I don’t have any fun on my own
I don’t have any fun on my own
If you want to have fun fall in love with me
If you want to have fun fall in love with me (repeat)

GIRL: I’m afraid
I’m afraid, Boy
I’m afraid I’d laugh in your face
I’m afraid, Boy
I’m afraid I’d laugh in your face, Boy
I’d laugh in your face, Boy

BOY: You’re like God
You’re like God
You’re like God to me
You’re like God
You’re like God to me (repeat)
What we learn from this song is that Boy doesn't have any fun on his own, but Girl doesn't want him—she's afraid she'd laugh in his face!—even though Girl is like God to Boy.

(Repeat.)

Now, repetition is great! Repetition is practically what makes music music! Repetition is even more necessary in a critique of Christian kitsch, as anyone who has ever heard a [shudder] "praise song" will attest. But this seems like repetition for lack of something to say. Why is she like God to him? How did he go from just wanting to have fun to literally idolizing her? There's no transition, no connection, and it makes it impossible for us to sympathize with Boy or with his change of heart. It's a problem within the more formally ambitious songs, and from song to song (and here I'm torn between wanting to cite more of my least favorite moments and feeling like I'm harping on it already, and I don't want to harp on it).

Perhaps inevitably, the structural failures of the libretto are reflected in the music. Marks incorporates a cover of the Gaithers classic "He Touched Me" on the album, seemingly because of the opportunities for innuendo at the expense of a naïve and corny tune. So why is "He Touched Me," with its embarrassing lyrics and wobbly old melody, the album's most compelling moment of songcraft? Marks and costar Mellissa Hughes are highly competent pop/show singers; if only his own compositions had gone deeper than aping the bombast of Christian pop, and dug into what it is about this stuff that can make it so touching in spite of itself, he might have created a far more satisfying piece of work. But the album never finds a happy compromise between narrative and lyrical, or between its two ironical poses of happy-face pop and breast-beating histrionics.

But don't take MY word for it! Stream this thang over at the New Amsterdam site (it's just two songs now, but I imagine that after tomorrow's release they'll let you hear the whole thing before you buy), and if you like it you can purchase your very own copy and then argue about this with me in the comment section.

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