The Year of the Songwriter

by Stephen Deusner on March 12, 2012

Loudon Wainwright III

Here’s another song in C

When I play piano, it’s my key

If I was playing guitar

I’d probably be in G.

That’s Loudon Wainwright III, who visited Duke Performances just last season, singing “In C” on his upcoming album, Older Than My Old Man Now. It’s a spry, up-tempo number full of clever rhymes and sing-song melodies, and somehow Wainwright manages to sound both weary and rejuvenated at the same time. Throughout his 40-year career, he’s written countless songs in C, many more in G, and scores in other keys. The majority of those tunes examine Wainwright’s own autobiography, candidly addressing the dissolution of his marriages, the disconnections among his family, and their shared talent for music.

“In C” is just the latest in a long line of knowingly self-centered songs by Wainwright. And yet, despite the repetitive nature of the enterprise, it’s impossible to deny that he’s having some fun with his own image, turning his own and the listener’s expectations on their head. His vocals have a mischievous self-regard; his tone is gracefully wry. He may be nodding toward mortality—all of his songs move deathward, to paraphrase Don DeLillo—but he sounds lively and frisky, which reveals the song’s central irony: No matter how many of these damn things he writes, that next song is still invigorating; perhaps a little daunting, but thrilling nevertheless. Wainwright’s mature writing keeps him young.

"Older Than My Old Man Now"

Older Than My Old Man Now is only one of many excellent singer/songwriter albums getting a release in 2012—enough to suggest a resurgence, if not necessarily a renaissance. Older masters like Leonard Cohen and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner are still writing at the very top of their game, constantly realigning their concerns and approaches to rejuvenate themselves, while relative newcomers like Joe Pug, Afie Jurvanen (a.k.a. Bahamas), Bhi Bhiman, and Sharon Van Etten (another Duke Performances alum) are announcing themselves boldly. Even the much-derided Lana Del Rey devised her public persona as much through her admittedly awkward lyrics as through her retro-futuristic music, revealing her understanding of how words can encapsulate identity even more than fashion or rhythm.

And then there are the reliable lyricists in between, no longer rookies but without the extensive catalogs of their elders: After nearly a decade with the Hold Steady, frontman Craig Finn released his first solo album, Full Eyes Clear Heart, whose songs are set among the denizens of a Minneapolis bar called the Wagon Wheel. Anaïs Mitchell one-ups him with Young Man in America, a concept album about a mythic America told from multiple points of view. It’s not just dizzyingly ambitious, but a moving endeavor of immense empathy.

The guitar-slinging singer/songwriter, as conceived in the Western folk tradition of individual authenticity, has always been an important part of American popular music. And those individuals have always played games with identity. But in the Internet Age, with its quasi-anonymous electronic producers and mysterious online indie bands, identity games are turbo-charged and traditions are dispersed. Plus, decades of revolutionary art music have done much to wean us from the folkie template. The old singer/songwriter model can feel quaint by comparison, if not irrelevant. Why, then, are singer/songwriters having such a strong showing in 2012?

"Wrekcing Ball"

Perhaps in some regard, this spike is political in nature; a reaction of the radicalized left in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. Grasping for import and dissent, searching for some shared language to capture the mood and the moment, many artists are finding historical precedents in Woody Guthrie, Peter Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and other folkies whose outraged words cut just as sharply as a punk guitar riff or a Bomb Squad beat. Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, is all but a mash note to Guthrie and Seeger, although Sri Lankan-American Bhiman and East Nashville stoner sage Todd Snider have made better topical albums about the same issues, emphasizing humor and character over sanctimony.

Regardless of its long-term effects, OWS in the short term has refocused attention on the idea of addressing social concerns through music, whether directly or indirectly. Music can engage with and react to certain issues without lyrics, but lyrics allow for earthy specificity in regard to subject matter and potentially invoke a communal experience, all but begging listeners to sing, shout, or strum along. Concurrent with that idea is a new earnestness in these songwriters: you can’t write songs to change the world without believing that songs can change the world. It’s an optimistic idea, albeit one that may be delusional at a time when audiences are fragmented across race, class, and genre.

"Mr. M"

Only a handful of 2012’s songwriters, however, are overtly politicized. Many more artists are writing in a confessional style that is necessarily personal instead of public. On Lambchop’s eleventh album, Mr. M, Kurt Wagner’s lyrics, which address death and loss only tangentially, barely leave the house as he conflates the everyday with the epic. With sharp insights bolstered by her powerful voice, Van Etten’s third album, Tramp, examines the conflicts and contradictions of sustained romantic relationships, with little regard for the mass of American music covering those same themes. This is music as world-ordering enterprise, intended to wring reassuring stability from chaotic situations—a mission not dissimilar from the OWS-inspired artists, except on a much more personal level.

It’s interesting that Wainwright’s song “In C” shares its title with a 1964 work by the American composer Terry Riley. Whether Wainwright intended the reference is not known and not really important. It might be more compelling if it happened by accident, a trick of the subconscious linking two essentially different pieces. Whereas Wainwright’s song is tightly constrained right down to its AABB rhyme scheme, Riley’s piece sprawls wildly, such that each performance produces a fundamentally different musical work. He wrote more than fifty short suites of music for roughly forty musicians, each of whom would control how many times they played each suite; the result was a conflict of musicians but also a sense of freedom and possibility.

Sharon Van Etten

Riley’s “In C” has inspired generations of artists in the half-century since its debut, informing the work of other composers (Steve Reich, Philip Glass) as well as rock musicians (Brian Eno, Radiohead). It helped to expand our definition of music in the same way that young people with home recording software do today, but it still didn’t render the old G-D-C chord progression obsolete. The singer/songwriter tradition carried on by the likes of Wainwright and Van Etten is used for liberal ends but is essentially conservative in form, concentrating on the finite and the knowable rather than the malleable and mercurial.

There is a comfort in the simple idea of words and melodies and even musical keys expressing ideas, especially during a time of social, cultural, political, and financial upheaval. Which is not to say that these songwriters offer mere escapism; their songs are too conflicted, too outraged, too engaged with the world to weave a protective cocoon around the listener. Nor do they represent any kind of reaction against experimental music. Instead, the written song represents a cherished mode of self-expression honed over time, one that prizes a communal experience between artist and listener. Or, as Wainwright sings on “In C”:

It’s when a world can fall apart

And there’s not a thing that I can do

Except to sing in C for you.

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