erasing clouds

Jonathan Richman, Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love

reviewed by dave heaton

Jonathan Richman's in love with the world, and he wants you to know it. He's excited by smells ("The World Is Showing Its Hand"), artists ("Salvador Dali," "Vincent Van Gogh"), love ("My Baby Love Love Loves Me"), and the world's diverse cultures and their languages (on this album he sings 2 songs in Italian and 2 in French). But none of that is new - minus most of the first Modern Lovers album, he's been expressing love for life through its small details, and a heartfelt compassion and hope for humanity, throughout his whole career. But over his last few albums that love's taken on an extra poignancy.

1996's Surrender to Jonathan had a goofy photo of Jojo in a pirate hat on the cover, but inside were songs that dealt honestly with the pain and sadness of divorce. Ever since, his happiest songs still have a tinge of sadness about them. For example, his new album Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love revisits his old song "Vincent Van Gogh" (originally recorded for 1985's Rockin N Romance) and replaces some of the original's goofy energy (lines like the singalong "the baddest painter since Jan Vermeer!") with lines about the sadness of the paintings following him down the hall. Of course, the sadness lurking in Jonathan's songs isn't new, just more on the surface. He's always brilliantly captured the way things we love (summer, youth) are always fleeting and transitory. But it's more on the surface now, giving his songs a certain older, wiser feel that at times can lend them even more emotional resonance.

Of course, this is a Jonathan Richman album, so I apologize if I'm leading you to expect something dour or melancholy. Not So Much... crisply and capably captures the essence of Jonathan: beautifully upbeat songs that distill 50s pop-rock and folk music from around the world into something that is uniquely his own. For those on his wavelength, this is a dance party with an overall humanistic, uplifting perspective on the world and messages about jumping into life and trying your best to make the world a better place. That sentiment is encapsulated not just in the title track and a great song called "He Gave Us the Wine to Taste," but in one of the album's quietest tracks, "Abu Jamal," a tribute to death row inmate/journalist Mumia Abu Jamal. In its "political"-ness it might seem out of character for Jonathan, but really it isn't; it's a pretty, haunting song about helping improve the world which, really, is what plenty of his songs are about when you get down to it.

Not So Much to Be Loved is overall a very typical Jonathan Richman album, but to my ears that's nowhere near a bad thing. It's filled with infectious melodies, humor, heart and energy...and, perhaps most of all, open, heartfelt emotion. The album ends with two unlisted tracks (one an alternate version of the title track) that are quieter and sadder in tone. The more low-key version of "Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love" is one of the most beautiful moments, and a wonderful way for the album to end, with Jonathan gently contemplating the power of love and the way the passing of time can produce growth as well as loss.

Issue 25, July 2004

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