Somewhere Near Paterson
Richard Shindell is one of the finest songwriters ever to practice the craft. His songs are immediately recognizable for their wry wit, inspired imagery and telling dialogue. Shindell doesn't flinch at taking on the persona of an unsavory character and when he speaks from a victim's point of view he is never lured into sentimentality or bathos. He is also a master of the art of implication - forcing us to infer the whole picture from what his speakers do and do not say. His first CD, Sparrows Point, was a masterpiece, with memorable songs like "Sparrow's Point," "By Now," "Fleur de Lys," "Nora," and even "Kenworth of My Dreams." Later albums, though less dense, have given us a constant stream of instant classics like "May," "Fishing," "Summer Breeze, Cotton Dress," and "Mary Magdalene." Remember the INS agent in "Fishing" who keeps getting drawn into reveries of his childhood in Michigan? Or how the would-be rapist in "By Now" shows a subtle understanding of the teenaged hitchhiker he's just picked up as he lures her into a false sense of security? Or the love-lorn Magdalene packing a whole gospel into her quip, "It was his career or mine." Shindell is a novelist with the economy of a poet, and even his melodies seem timeless. His deep, resonant voice doesn't hurt either. So, along with everyone else, I was looking forward to this new effort.
There is a lot of fine writing here, no mistake. In "My Love Will Follow You" Shindell manages to turn a declaration of love into a piece that's almost brooding in its contemplation of future loss. "Wysteria" goes the other way, with its melancholy nostalgia for a time and place that retains no trace of the love that once flourished there. Still, the one song on the album that floored me was "Transit." Somewhere near Paterson, NJ, a kind of Twilight Zone episode transpires on Route 80, where rush hour motorists drive headlong through the Delaware Water Gap and off the edge of the earth into the setting sun. Like much of Shindell's best work, this is a theological tale - a nun trying to get a busload of children to a concert is getting her prayers answered. The story is haunting and grimly funny. And very real.
The album opens with three political songs that seem to be trying to repeat the success of songs like "Fishing" and "May," but these seem formulaic. Of course, it's a formula that Shindell owns the copyright to - the dramatic monologue with a political angle - but still, he's cribbing from himself - and maybe a little Robert Browning. In "Confession," a wallstreet broker cons his pharmacist into refilling a scrip for amphetamines so he won't miss a minute of lucrative trading; in "Abuelita" the mother of a disappeared man searches for her grandchild who was given away to political allies of the junta; in "You Stay Here," a refugee camp father goes off to forage for food, wood, guns, clothing - and God. All are technically flawless - however, none of these characters has the psychological complexity or emotional intensity of his best fictive creations. These new characters have no strictly personal back story and there's no psychological component to the dramas, though there are nice moments. In "Abuelita" the grandmother struggles with the thought that she might not recognize her own flesh and blood. In "You Stay Here," the refugee who plans to go out foraging for coats on the road, says to his wife "We'll wash them clean with melted snow / The kids don't ever have to know." The implication is that he will get them off of fresh corpses. After that, he says, he'll look for God. It all seems a little heavy-handed. Shindell's created a high standard - the highest in the business - and there's only a few songs on this album that match it.
Musically, the album of course has a great sound - rich without seeming like too much. But I don't find any examples of the distinctive melodies that make his best songs so immediately riveting and memorable. Even the two instrumentals (one by the album's producer) seem intended only as an interlude, as neither offers much melody or development. Maybe, like the grocer in "Grocer's Broom," Shindell has earned some idle days. Maybe Dar Williams' beautiful and haunting "Calling the Moon" is the perfect here, helping another world-worn poet find the words for the age-old supplication to the muse. Maybe this is one of those albums that just grows on you. -HB