Thursday, January 04, 2018

"Don't Forget How Valuable You Are," Mary J. Blige and Her Fans

For Lauren, one of the strongest women I'll ever imagine much less believe I've known:

This was a tough one for me. I’m coming out of a 16 year relationship and marriage; Mary J. Blige is coming out of the same length marriage, and she's brought a whole album hard-focused on the process. “Thick of It” was the first single because that’s precisely what it’s about.

Sure, sounds helpful, and it is, but it's also every bit as hard. It would be easy if Mary simply got your anger out and cheered you forward. That’s what a lot of critics seem to hear. But what I hear is the push pull of the keys and bass at the center of “Thick of It." This album is about being pushed one way and pulled another because the separation of two human beings cannot be done without unfathomable pain.

Blige does express that pain, and an anger fingering fantasies of revenge, but the brilliance of MJB is that she’s too honest an artist not to turn the questions over in her head. “Love ain’t just black and white,” she announces from the start. Or the thorny undercurrents of the relatively soothing soul of “U & Me (Love Lesson),” a record about how much we don’t know about our most basic motivations.

Despite the two nods to The London Sessions, the spare ballad “Smile” or the raver “Find the Love,” most of this album is firmly anchored in the rich blend of utterly contemporary American hip hop Blige has come to sling like gut bucket blues. And if that doesn’t sound like the highest compliment, you’re not hearing me.

The album starts, over a building but halting piano, with the singer asking how she reached this hellish precipice in her life and answering herself, “I got here with love.” Each time she answers herself, the paradox becomes clearer. Love can be hell, fire and brimstone hell, but this woman knows (and her fans know) everything good came from that same source.

Of course, Blige is making a career statement. Since her first crossover hit, “Real Love,” she’s been about where love takes her. Her empathy has been her guide, and it’s kept her rooted to her audience in a way celebrity divas simply can’t replicate. One might cast Ms. Blige in a VH1 special with that name, but “celebrity” or “diva” just doesn’t quite fit.

Blige carefully maintains that connection to her audience because that is how she sees herself--as one of her fans who's made it to the mainstage. She can write inspirational lyrics, but she respects herself too much to skip the confusion and the pain. At the end of a decade of wrestling with the vagaries of love in marriage, Blige has made her most explicit navigational album to get the hell out—using “love” as the north star and “truth” as the random variable that must be figured into the equation. 

Funny thing, on my Target exclusive, the two extra songs are “The Naked Truth” (which is about the most exposed, romantic yearning on the record) and “Love in the Middle” (which is explaining just how the singer keeps her balance on this love question). In other words, the bonus tracks underscore the need to square the “love” and “truth” that troubles this entire record.

Does it square the circle? Of course not, but it circles the square, and that brings everyone listening into the problem asking the right questions. Title track “Strength of a Woman” does something more, too. It celebrates the singularity of womanhood as well as the many feminine roles ignored by manhood and often under siege to men’s virility. Of course, the main key here is also “love,” all you really need.

She delivers that message without idealism or irony. It’s something sky-is-blue knowable. Love is how she got here, and it’s how we got here. If you wanna keep your eye on the ball, you gotta keep an eye on love.

In reality, easier said than done doesn’t begin to explain the problems that lie ahead, but it’s why people make music. And it’s why we play it, and it’s one way we hang on.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Talking Musical Revolutions

The world’s changing rapidly, and so is this business of writing about music. It’s not what it was when my first musical mentor, James McGraw, introduced this Oklahoma kid to underground music and Rolling Stone, and it’s not what it was when my first music writing mentor, Dave Marsh, started schooling me with record reviews and American Grandstand. It’s not what it was when I first discovered Trouser Press, Maximum Rock & Roll, Guitar Player, Musician, The Source and Vibe. It’s not what it was when my friends and I started our first rock & politics newsletter.

In some of its academic tendencies, it’s certainly become more thoroughly informed, and it’s probably more broadly populist than ever. So there’s an upside. 

But what I don’t see vividly enough is rock and rap writing as a completion of the circuit of the music itself. When I started, I saw it as an art form that played a role in the culture—as breaking was to graffiti was to hip hop. I never got very good at that guitar, but I wanted to make my own kind of answer records with words.

In 2018, of course words are more prevalent than ever, but they don’t seem to be read, enough. This has something to do with why Marsh’s greatest critical output the past ten years has been through his SiriusXM radio show Kick out the Jams. And it’s why my brother, Lee Ballinger, has so inspired me with his Love and War podcast. It’s also why I’m inspired by Daniel Wolff’s continuous community conversations in the wake of Grown-Up Anger.

And it’s why I feel I have to take three paragraphs to even begin to give context to what journalist/poet Gavin Martin’s new album, Talking Musical Revolutions, means to me.

Born out of a series of musical/spoken word events, Martin’s album is cultural criticism as music. It teaches its lessons phrase-by-phrase with each listen, it sweetens those lessons with driving bass and drums, shimmering guitar and keys.

Many of Martin’s songs are poetic essays on musical icons—Wilko Johnson, David Bowie, Rory Gallagher, The Sex Pistols and Marvin Gaye—while others deal with the seedy relationship between DJ and pedophile Jimmy Savile and Margaret Thatcher and a fantasy derived from an environmentally damaged seagull that overturns Irish Protestant delusion. Perhaps my favorite, for all kinds of personal and musical reasons, is album closer, “Time Spills,” the tale of the destruction of a beloved friend. All of it is urgently about why music matters.

The accompaniment is remarkable throughout. This is poetic rock in the tradition of The Last Poets, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll and John Trudell. By that I mean the music doesn’t just add atmosphere, it carries things home.

Often, it works as a sort of juxtaposition. While “The Pistols of Sex” has a wall of guitars that calls to mind the band, the epic tribute to David Bowie, “Talking David Bowie” has a hip hop sensibility and the tale of Marvin Gaye, “Long Hard Road to Be Free (For Marvin)” takes the form of gothic rock, though the guitar is indeed soulful. These mixed sensibilities broaden the tent in ways words in a magazine once promised.

I’ve learned to listen to all of these artists with different ears, Gallagher and Johnson, essentially, for the first time. I’ve gained a deepened sense of the political dimensions of everything at play here, even the most personal aspects of our lives. As much as anything I’ve gained a sense of possibility, and it starts at a dead end.  Here's the opener:

The quasi-Martin character that starts the album with “I Want to Tell You Something” is the danger all around—the drunken old-timer at the bar, telling you what it all meant when it really meant something, reminding you of your inadequacy having never been from a certain place and time. He speaks directly for the 16 year old me in the 55 year old body. 

But Martin shifts point of view to cast doubt on the old punk. He's doesn't want to believe it's all over. He sees the danger (and the delusion) there.  (In an added verse on the lyric sheet, Martin makes it plain.) The past wasn’t everything we think it was any more than the present is everything we think it isn’t. The truth is we gotta roll with where we are, and there’s no time to waste. The world is changing so fast we constantly need to be rethinking our jobs.

Not that we should waste time second guessing every glimpse of the truth. The appeal of "I Want to Tell You Something" is that the character is talking about real salvation. Everything was, in fact, there in the past, but it only means what it could if we reconcile it with today. With Talking Musical Revolutions, Gavin Martin finds a way forward. The clear call to the rest of us is to find ours.