|Linda Ronstadt: Mad Love|
All together now, and not too loud:|
The word is not the thing, The word is not the thing: Hi ho the derry-o The word is not the thing.Or, as somebody else said, the map is not the territory. But, as Kin Hubbard said about poverty not being a disgrace, it might as well be. Consider the ramifications of the words "New Wave" as opposed to those of "punk." Deferring to the British- as we tend to do, especially in matters rock-and-roll- we let them have "punk," which left us having to shoulder the more pretentious and more broadly influential (in the word-molding-thought sense) "New Wave." When, in fact, our Iggy Pop and our Bruce Springsteen were punks, pure and simple, in strict-constructionist street language.
Since wearing a label means trying to live up (or down) to it, thinking of themselves as members of the New Wave has already gotten our American practitioners into all sorts of silliness, with art-school "intellectuals" threatening to become as theatrical- and as musically irrelevant- as the glitter rockers were, quickie-commerce groups like Blondie "merging" New Wave and disco (as if such a thing were possible), and various other deeds being done to obscure the basic thing the music represents, which is a new shot of adolescent rebellion, the essential stuff of rock-and-roll.
Living up to the label "New Wave," I think, is hastening the day when these "rebels" wind up palling around with over-age rock entrepreneurs or playing golf with Bob Hope- being "co-opted," in a (Sixties) word. America loves rebellions. It eats them for breakfast. Good source of energy. If you want the Establishment to clasp you to its breast, rail against it louder than the surrounding noise, show some fire and outrage, and you've got a shot at the good life. As individuals, we may not have gotten the hang of turning the other cheek, but as institutions- commercial ones, especially- we do it pretty smoothly. Sooner or later we put that rebellious energy to work at selling something.
In a sense, Linda Ronstadt- partly because she is almost an institution herself- has hastened this process by going all the way (more or less) with the New Wave in her new pink-and-black-jacketed album "Mad Love." Ronstadt is popular not only across party lines, but across regional frontiers, color barriers, and age brackets as well. To a huge crowd from age nine to the age of the youngest members of the Streisand mob, Ronstadt is thought of as Ms. Pop Music. And so, whatever she does, she institutionalizes it to some degree. What she does in this case includes three Elvis Costello songs (Elvis, who is British, is as New Wavish as Iggy is punk), three by Mark Goldenberg and one by Billy Steinberg (both of the Cretones), a couple of 1965 rockers she makes sound vaguely New Wave, and a Neil Young song that fits here because it has the grace to fit most anywhere. How she does them ranges from expertly to not quite convincingly, although my strongest impression is that the program- and maybe the subgenre or whatever it is- wastes too much of her uniqueness. To put it in easy pop terms, Ronstadt's a melody singer and what this music needs is a beat singer.
I don't question her sincerity. I remember a few years ago how enthusiastic she was about reggae and at that time I was able to satisfy myself that these enthusiasms are genuine. And here she's gone and got one of those New Wave haircuts (from a blind barber using hedge clippers, from the look of it). That's a commitment of sorts. True, her dislike for disco could have nudged her toward its alleged opposite, a reactionary move, but she sounds genuinely attracted to some things about this music- its vitality among them.
But New Wave's main attraction may be its romanticism. She is romantic, and so is the process of adolescent rebellion. Scratch either and you find idealism. But Ronstadt does not have your basic punk attitude, as I insist on calling it; she is a softer, warmer person than that, and simply not that angry. This shows most vividly when she isn't quite able to fake the toughness called for in Goldenberg's Cost of Love (which is catchy but sounds basically like a Springsteen out-take). In other places, such as Costello's Talking in the Dark (an odd way to end an album), she seems to identify with the words but to be indecisive about how seriously to take them. And a time or two she subtly teases a punkwave song into one of the farther reaches of her own musical attitude.
Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher are such pros that many a nuance is picked up and embellished by a new (read: different) array of back-up musicians (including only Dan Dugmore from her regular band) with a better feel for how it's done than most outsiders could hope to muster. Russ Kunkel gets an interesting snap-boom effect that anchors much of the beat, which gets a pretty energetic pounding from all hands. Still, the romantic connection, Ronstadt's reason for being there, stretches a mite thin over this attitude gulf, and the thing sounds like something Ronstadt did just this once rather than what she does regularly. There's also the simple aesthetic problem of getting mileage out of talent: when you have a voice this good, you want to hear it hold notes for some length of time, and this program doesn't often allow that.
So, although it seems sincere enough (I wouldn't bet my life she's taking it too seriously), it also seems like a project or an exercise. In lesser hands such a venture would have gone belly-up on the New Wave, but this- to the degree anyone can take it on its own terms- is a well-intended, spirited, almost plucky little album. The thing is, Linda Ronstadt can go back to being Linda Ronstadt any time she wants to, and the rest of the New Wave can't.