Blessed with a classicist’s knowledge of pop history, abundant talent, good looks and a family of Hollywood royalty, Michael Penn has yet to reach his commercial potential in a solo career that got off the ground in the late ’80s. “No Myth,” the lead single from March, is self-consciously erudite, with references to Shakespeare and Brontë, yet it ended up known as the “Romeo in black jeans” or “someone to dance with” song. (It won him the 1990 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist thanks to a wry video in which he fumbles for a guitar pick while lip-synching the song.) Most of March is nervous acoustic guitar pop, tinged with bitterness. “This & That” is an ambivalent song of attraction, but the lyrical focus is diffuse and sometimes even obscure, as in the spat-out Dylanisms (think “Subterranean Homesick Blues” not “Blowin’ in the Wind”) of the raucous word-salad “Brave New World.” While “Disney’s a Snow Cone / Bedlam Boys” is cinematic high drama, “Half Harvest” and “Innocent One” are much more typical singer-songwriter fare. The album was largely recorded with a drum machine rather than a human drummer, and the tension between the periodically clunky rhythms and the acoustic guitar and singing is among its charms.
For better and worse, Free-for-All is entirely the work of humans. Penn here exchanges the debut’s intermittent bitterness for bleakness: the bile practically oozes from the energetic but clangy “Seen the Doctor,” which was selected as the album’s first single and sealed its fate in the off-putting metaphor of going under the surgeon’s knife. The instrumentation and tempo are weird, compounded by references to Dorothy Lamour and the Commodores and F-words in the chorus. But success isn’t everything, and in fact it’s a fine song. Free-for-All has more than its share of those, from the finely wrought acoustic guitar filigrees of “Coal” to the snarling “Now We’re Even” and the keen, Squeeze-ish “Bunker Hill.” A fine video by the Brothers Quay got “Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)” some airplay, but “Strange Season” is the best song here. The Free Time EP, released alongside Free-for-All, offers a few live tracks.
After Free-for-All, Penn did music for a number of films by Paul Thomas Anderson and, in 1997, married Aimee Mann in the perfect Jon Brion-era marriage of smart indie and Hollywood celebrity. The same year, he released the absolutely perfect Resigned, which remains his best overall record. Penn’s fondness for vintage analog synthesizers, baroque tempos and obscure allusion is given free rein. The melodic and lyrical ingenuity of the initially facile “Try” is enlivened by crashing cymbals, buzzing synths, backwards vocal segments and a sweeping and patently fake string section. “Like Egypt Was,” which oddly borrows a snippet from Crowded House’s “Chocolate Cake,” looks back to the pharaohs for inspiration. As always, beneath the sheer appeal of the melodies and sonic confections lurks a heart dripping with malice and self-deprecation, as in “Selfish” and “All That That Implies.”
MP4 took another five years and another label to reach the public. It lacks some of the previous work’s strength, but the heights are just as substantial: check out the exquisite melancholy of “Whole Truth.” “Lucky One,” the opening track, touts its own glorious “bells and whistles” in one verse, with plinking keyboards, pealing guitar solos and Penn’s typically rueful singing. The completely superfluous tempo and chord changes at the close of the song, while wholly typical of Penn’s approach, are forgivable in light of such a feast. “High Time” is another gem. Background harmonies come and go mysteriously, and wistful swirling orchestral flourishes add the entire album a tone of mistiness and sentiment. “You wanted the world / but it was only the heart of a girl,” he concludes in the chorus of “Bucket Brigade.” Still, the chill: the keening chorus of “Don’t Let Me Go” is set against verses of miserable codependency.
In a burst of relative productivity, Penn released Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 only three years after MP4. Like Mann’s The Forgotten Arm, this is a concept album of sorts, exploring the world of post-World War II America from a range of perspectives. The album suffers, as does some of Mann’s more recent work, from overly restrained tempos and repetition, but the highlights are still there. The inescapably catchy (albeit bitter) “Walter Reed,” which bemoans the neglect of America’s returning soldiers, could be as relevant in 2005 as the year 1947. The somber “Pretending” and “Mary Lynn” employ unusual instrumentation (fiddle, vintage synthesizers, what sounds like a bodhran) and fine performances, but the simplicity of “On Automatic” provides relief from tedious tracks. Even with the familiar dramatics of “Room 712, the Apache” and “You Know How,” Mr. Hollywood Jr. is his weakest album.
Apparently to Penn’s surprise, Legacy collaborated with his various ex-labels to release Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection. The one hit, “No Myth,” is presented along 19 other tracks from Penn’s career, some of them in alternative versions. The delicate version of “Bunker Hill” is a highlight, and there is a good cross-section of other material, but fans who like Penn’s best material will be best served by buying the full-lengths.