Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In Defense of Stevie and Lyrical Obscurity

This week Stevie Nicks turns 62 years old, and this means two things for me. First, by acknowledging her birthday, I will undoubtedly be reminded by a loved one of the South Park episode where Stevie is impersonated by a goat, kidnapped by the Taliban, and does a stage performance (in goat-form with a chiffon skirt) singing “bah, bah, bahh.” Damn you, South Park. But second, and more importantly, her birthday gives me license to unabashedly praise her in all her fairytale-telling, gossamer-wearing, la-la-land living glory.

Stevie has long been an easy target for mocking and parody by the cynics of the rock and roll world. Last night I read through every album review that Rolling Stone magazine ever gave Stevie’s solo work. I don’t recommend it for other Stevie fans. It is harsh criticism, and it is the primary reason I soured to the magazine years ago. To appreciate Stevie’s words and her image, one must be willing to suspend reality, embrace the fantasy world she lives in, and come to terms with the notion that great lyrics can sometimes be nonsensical as long as they convey a mood or a feeling. This is something that rock critics have never accepted in Stevie’s songs, and as a result, she has not been taken seriously for her fantastic songwriting.

I like lyrical obscurity in songwriting, and I don’t think a songwriter should be discounted because their lyrics lack clarity. The songs that do not reveal all of the writer’s truths are the songs that stay with you over the course of time and take on different meanings as you grow and change. Stevie writes almost entirely about relationships, but she leaves her words open to interpretation by the listener and their own relationships. “Landslide,” “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You,” “Silver Springs,” “Storms,” “Sara,” and the list goes on… are songs that the listener can apply to any number of relationships in their life: to a lover, a child, a parent, a friend. Landslide will comfort the teenager struggling to get over the break-up of a first love, but then take on a whole different meaning to that same person when, 20 years down the road, they look into their child’s eyes. And the song’s meaning likely had many incarnations in between.

Stevie also is a master at putting words together in a way that conveys mood through imagery:

You could be my Silver Spring / Blue-green colors flashing / I would be your only dream / Your shining autumn, ocean crashing (Silver Springs)

And a black widow spider makes more sound than she / Black moons in those eyes of hers made more sense to me (Sister of the Moon)

The ones you dream of / The ones who walk away / With their capes pulled ‘round them tight / Crying for the night / Cry for the Nightbird (Nightbird)

She out in the distance sees him against the sky / A pale and violent rider / A dream begun in wine (The Highwayman)

Track a ghost through the fog / A charmed hour and a haunted song (Angel)

What does it all mean?!?! It doesn’t matter if her words are puzzling. As fragmented and obscure as her lyrics can be, they paint a pictures in the mind. You may not know what she was writing about in some songs; nonetheless, you know what she was feeling. Not all of Stevie’s songs are crafted in the style of a medieval fairytale. She has written many straightforward country-style tunes, and is quite talented in writing for that genre. “That’s Alright,” “Rose Garden,” “Enchanted,” and “Leather and Lace” are a few examples of her country-style songs. At the request of country singer Waylon Jennings, Stevie originally wrote “Leather and Lace” for Jennings to duet with his wife Jessi Colter. Jennings also produced very convincing country versions of “Rhiannon” and “Gold Dust Woman.”

I do understand some criticism of her albums. Although I think Stevie has consistently written great lyrics throughout the years, the overall quality of her finished music has depended on who was producing her albums. She fell prey in the late 80’s to some unfortunate instrumentation, as many artists did. I also understand that her lyrical style, as well as her vocal style, is not palatable to everyone.

Despite never being the critics’ darling, Stevie is intensely beloved by her fans, respected and admired by the countless artists she has shared the stage with, and continues to reach out and mentor young songwriters. For all of the fanciful tales she has told through song, she is as authentic a writer and a performer as they come. Her songs, her audience, and performing with her peers are the great loves of her life, and we are lucky recipients of that passion and dedication.

Don't listen to her, listen through her...


Monday, May 3, 2010

The Brandon Flowers Solo Project

I have now had a few days to process the announcement last week that Brandon Flowers would be branching out from his fellow Killers bandmates to embark on his own solo project. I couldn’t believe how shocked I felt to hear news that was not in the least bit shocking. A solo album comes as no surprise; fans and journalists have been speculating this move for months. I recall a fantastic interview Flowers gave Jonathon Ross last year when the Killers performed on his show. The lone awkward moment of the interview came when Ross questioned Flowers about the Killers songwriting process. Following Flowers reply (that he writes all of the lyrics and all band members write the music), Ross said “So, you really could go it alone quite easily.” It was a fairly lighthearted moment, but an uncomfortable shrug from Flowers and a camera shot of the rest of the band sitting backstage was all the foreshadowing I needed to tell me that a solo announcement was in the near future.

What threw me for a loop was the anticipation and build up to the announcement. Following a 4-day countdown clock on the Killers’ website- during which time the fan community hoped and speculated on the possible release of Killers B-sides, rarities, live recordings, or cover songs- the news of a solo project seemed bittersweet to those who recognize a delicate balance that all four members strike together. But what fans were hoping for was another taste of what we have already had, and knew we loved – perhaps outtakes from the Day & Age album or more live recordings from that tour. For me, the shock came because my mindset was stuck in the past, but as I should well know by now, the Killers don’t do the past. They embrace change with each new project and they always move forward. The hiatus announcement that came months ago should have officially closed the most recent chapter in the Killers book, but really, it took the Flowers solo announcement to bring that reality home.

Any apprehension I have about a Flowers solo project goes back to the band member balance I mentioned. Although guitarist Dave Keuning seems (almost) on par with Flowers in terms of flamboyance and ambition, I’ve always had the feeling that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci and bassist Mark Stoermer are musically, and possibly also in band promotion, a grounding force for Flowers. They not only provide a masculine balance to the gold-lame-feather-wearing faction of the band, I would not be surprised if they are also the force that reins the band in when the threat of overexposure looms. Musically speaking, Vannucci and Stoermer keep Flowers firmly planted in the rock and roll genre. Without the weight of the Killers heavy rhythm section to ground him, I suspect that his solo style will float off into synth-y Pet Shop Boys land.

As much as I will miss not hearing the other band members on this project, I really am excited about any new material that Brandon Flowers gives us. The thing I find most endearing about him as an artist is his earnest, ongoing effort to be excellent at the two things that do not seem inherently easy for him: writing lyrics and stage performing. From the very first album, he has shown flashes of genius in his ability to write great lyrics, and over the years he has demonstrated increasing consistency in doing such. Flowers is a student of the game, both as a songwriter and a performer, taking cues from the greats and styling them to be uniquely his own. His continuous evolution at both tasks gets to the heart of the tremendous devotion of his fans. The conviction and vulnerability he brings to his music makes him wholly relatable. With each album we watch him become more skilled and comfortable in his songwriting and performing roles, fans feel invested in his journey, and we root for his success.

When I first heard the name of Flowers solo album - “Flamingo” – I questioned, not for the first time, his heterosexuality. It turns out that Las Vegan mythology may have lent itself to the name of the album. An insightful blog post by a Killers acquaintance and fellow Las Vegan Rodney Pardey (aka Michael Valentine), explains the significance of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas mythical history and provides a theory for the album title. To summarize (really, you should check out the whole article), the Flamingo was the first Hollywood-style glitz and glam hotel in Vegas. It was a break from the modest, dusty establishments of Wild West Vegas, meant to attract glamour and money from Los Angeles visitors. If within Brandon Flowers resides dichotomous Vegas personalities, then Sam’s Town (the Killers sophomore album) and Flamingo may just be the artistic representations of those personalities. Sam’s Town is the working class, dust under the fingernails Vegas, and Flamingo is the spare-no-expense, extravagant sequined personality. Pardey’s article also points out that the Flamingo was built miles from the Downtown center on a stretch of a lonely highway- possibly significant to the album name as representing the lone break for Flowers from the rest of the band on this project.

Everything that Brandon Flowers creates is well crafted with attention to detail, hometown sentimentality, and purposeful rock and roll myth building. It is exciting that fans will soon see the next phase in a fascinating music career. Flamingo does not yet have a release date, but with any luck, we’ll have a Killer back on tour by summer!