Pop music odyssey: the 1990s

October 27, 2015

It’s time for another checkpoint on my pop music odyssey. It has taken quite a few months for me to navigate this stretch, but here I am, safe and sound. This portion of the odyssey has included 12 records from Van Morrison, 8 from Neil Young, 6 from Bob Dylan, 5 from Tom Waits, 3 from Mark Heard, and just 1 (but a good one!) from Leonard Cohen. I also threw in a sampling of 3 records by Nick Cave (Let Love In, Murder Ballads, and The Boatman’s Call).

By the end of the 1990s, my companions on this pop music odyssey were getting on in years: Dylan was in his late 50s, Van Morrison and Neil Young were both 55, Tom Waits had reached 50, and Leonard Cohen was in his mid-60s. One might think that their creativity and ambition would be in decline, rock and roll being a young man’s game, and in some cases that expectation is born out. But all of them released at least one pretty great album in the 1990s, and a few of them were doing work at least as good as what had come before.

In fact, the music these men made in the 1990s is particularly close to my heart. I myself was 15 years old in 1990, and it was during this decade that I discovered each of these singers for the first time. The years 1991-92, in particular, are a kind of golden dream in my personal history of music appreciation: it was in those years that Van Morrison made Hymns to the Silence, Mark Heard made Second Hand, Tom Waits made Bone Machine and Leonard Cohen made The Future, and beyond the borders of this odyssey they were the years of great records from U2, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip, Lyle Lovett, Sting, Crowded House, and Pearl Jam. For me all of these records have an aura of wonder around them. I know their nooks and crannies. I honestly can’t say if they are as good as I think they are; I can only hear them with my 17-year old ears, and they sound pretty darn terrific.

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Not that there wasn’t some dross in the mix. Dylan launched his first LP of the decade with a contender for his very worst song (viz. “Wiggle Wiggle”), and his subsequent two records, on which he sang folk standards, were critically well-received but have never done anything for me. It seemed possible that Oh Mercy, in 1989, was to be his last hurrah. But then in 1997 he released Time Out of Mind, which is to my mind his best record since Blood on the Tracks, and, as it turned out, a record which inaugurated a bona fide late-career renaissance that continues, arguably, to this very day. In any case, I’ve loved Time Out of Mind since I first heard Dylan croak out the first line of “Love Sick”: I’m walking through streets that are dead. We understand implicitly that it was his voice that killed everything. Daniel Lanois, for all that he has been criticized for making all the records he produced sound the same, at least managed to get Dylan to record songs with arrangements and texture, something that was too often missing from the blunt-force approach to production that he used through much of the 1970s and 1980s. And “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” rank with the very best of the Dylan songbook.

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Neil Young had ended the 1980s on a high note, with Freedom, and he opened the new decade with the same raucous noise (only more so). Later in the decade he would team up with Pearl Jam on some blistering rock and roll records. But my favourite records of the decade are the quiet ones: Harvest Moon in 1992 and Sleeps with Angels in 1994, the later being the mildest mannered Crazy Horse album on record, and one of the high points in Young’s discography, a record of rough-hewn beauty, even if it lacks any particularly great individual songs. As is often the case with Young, the sound is more entrancing than the substance.

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The mouths of the best poets
Speak but a few words
And then lay down, stone cold,
In forgotten fields.

Well, I doubt that one of the best poets would write about mouths laying down, but, still, these lines of his come to mind when I think about Mark Heard, who passed away suddenly in 1992, and who was, I’ll wager, the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. As I said last time, he made three truly outstanding records in the early 1990s, of which the second, called Second Hand, is his masterpiece, and one of my all-time favourite albums. It’s a sort of miracle and a sort of tragedy that an album this intimate and desperate and honest found its way into the world through the “contemporary Christian music” portal; a miracle because the piety of the record, though very real, is not expressed in comfortable or comforting ways, and a tragedy because it didn’t find the audience it deserved. The music is stripped down to a few acoustic instruments, and Heard’s ragged tenor was never captured in better form. Indispensable.

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Leonard Cohen released only one record in the 1990s: The Future. Despite its hokey instrumentation — it sounds as though it was made with one of those $50 electronic keyboards from Radio Shack — it contains some of his most ambitious songwriting, and he is in glorious sepultural voice. It is fair to say, I think, that it is the most political record he has made, for it contains two epic songs on broadly political and cultural themes (“The Future” and “Democracy”), and though I am normally averse to politics in song I don’t tire of these ones. “Closing Time”, his bouncy apocalyptic number, was a pretty big hit, and I have a very distinct memory of hearing these lines on the radio: “So we struggle and we stagger / Down the snakes and up the ladders / To the tower where the blessed hours chime”. Not much to look at when set down on paper, I suppose, but to my inexperienced teenaged ears, those lines convinced me that popular song could, in the right hands, aspire to be something like art. I don’t remember if I was already listening to Dylan and Waits at that point, but my encounter with Leonard Cohen’s The Future certainly catalyzed my interest in the craft of songwriting.

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If I’m not mistaken, Hymns to the Silence was the first Van Morrison record that I really got to know. I can still remember reading the review, by Brian Quincy Newcomb, and thinking that I needed to find a way to hear it. It was not at all a bad entry point into Van’s music. The gauzy veil that had hung over much of his music in the 1980s was blown away on this record; everything was crisp and clear, and he was firing on most cylinders. Of course, being a sprawling double album it does have its share of sub-standard material, but they are the exception not the rule, and there are a handful of outstanding numbers. There is even a flute on a few tracks. (It is strange but true that Van Morrison only puts a flute on his very best songs; this is a fool-proof crutch for critics.) And the record contains my favourite rendition of a hymn by a pop music singer: he sings “Be Thou My Vision”.

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It has been said that Tom Waits writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. The two have never worked together to better effect than on Bone Machine, the record that I consider to be his masterpiece. The grand weepers, in “Who Are You?” and “Whistle Down the Wind”, are luxurious, and the grim reapers, in “Black Wings” and “Earth Died Screaming” and “Murder in the Red Barn” (and others! There are a lot of grim reapers on this record.), have never been more deliciously grim. And in “A Little Rain” he managed to combine the two kinds of song into one. It’s a terrific, terrific record — but too scary for the kids. (Still not as scary as Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.)

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Favourite cover songs: Van Morrison singing Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Hymns to the Silence); Dylan covering Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” (Good As I Been To You).

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Scariest song I’ve ever heard: Nick Cave’s “Song of Joy” (Murder Ballads)

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It is easy to come up with a list of ten favourite records for this decade. In rough descending order, I choose as follows:

Mark Heard — Second Hand (1991)
Tom Waits — Bone Machine (1992)
Bob Dylan — Time Out of Mind (1997)
Van Morrison — Hymns to the Silence (1991)
Leonard Cohen — The Future (1992)
Mark Heard — Dry Bones Dance (1990)
Neil Young — Sleeps with Angels (1994)
Mark Heard — Satellite Sky (1992)
Van Morrison — Enlightenment (1990)
Neil Young — Harvest Moon (1992)

The bottom five on that list are good, solid records, but the first five are knock-outs.

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As for a list of ten favourite songs, it’s not at all easy to settle, and that because of an abundance of riches. My initial short list had 35 songs, so whittling it down to 10 has been no laughing matter. Nonetheless, here we are:

Van Morrison — “Avalon of the Heart” (Enlightenment)
Bob Dylan — “Not Dark Yet” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Satellite Sky)
Mark Heard — “Look Over Your Shoulder” (Second Hand)
Tom Waits — “A Little Rain” (Bone Machine)
Bob Dylan — “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Lonely Moon” (Second Hand)
Van Morrison — “Take Me Back” (Hymns to the Silence)
Leonard Cohen — “The Future” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Worry Too Much” (Second Hand)

Oh, this is too cruel. Here are another ten:

Van Morrison — “Real Real Gone” (Enlightenment)
Tom Waits — “Whistle Down the Wind” (Bone Machine)
Van Morrison — “I Need Your Kind of Loving” (Hymns to the Silence)
Mark Heard — “Orphans of God” (Satellite Sky)
Bob Dylan — “Highlands” (Time Out of Mind)
Van Morrison — “High Summer” (Back on Top)
Van Morrison — “Hymns to the Silence” (Hymns to the Silence)
Tom Waits — “Murder in the Red Barn” (Bone Machine)
Mark Heard — “Nod Over Coffee” (Second Hand)
Leonard Cohen — “Closing Time” (The Future)

There; that’s better. But then there are these songs too:

Van Morrison — “Rough God Goes Riding” (The Healing Game)
Tom Waits — “Black Wings” (Bone Machine)
Leonard Cohen — “Waiting for the Miracle” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “House of Broken Dreams” (Dry Bones Dance)
Tom Waits — “House Where Nobody Lives” (Mule Variations)
Van Morrison — “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (The Healing Game)
Neil Young — “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon)
Leonard Cohen — “Democracy” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Dry Bones Dance” (Dry Bones Dance)
Van Morrison — “Carrying a Torch” (Hymns to the Silence)

Yes. Here is a YouTube playlist of all these songs.

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What was the worst of this portion of the odyssey? I can’t say for sure just how bad it is because I’ve never been able to listen to it through, but I’m going to go with Van Morrison’s “In the Days before Rock ‘n Roll” (Enlightenment). I think I’m going to be sick. The worst album has got to be Dylan’s Under the Red Sky (or, under the red sky, if you care about typographical niceties).

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I’ve not decided yet if I’ll take the remaining 15 years of the odyssey in one bite or two. Until next time…

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