I'm utterly convinced Don Lennon has a sizeable fan base waiting to dicover him; they just don't know it yet. Imagine Mark Eitzel's gallows jocularity mixed with some Jonathan Richman offhand quirk and Smiths-like jangle. Then picture albums carefully built around loose themes of inward/outward examination bouncing off perfect pop-culture signposts.
One of the most beguiling and unique songwriters around has quietly released his fifth album, Radical. It comes about a year since his last set of songs, the brilliant Routine, a tears-of-a-clown conceptual song cycle mixing autobiography, semi-ironic cultural critique and deeply satisfying melancholic songwriting.
The true genius of Mr. Lennon is his total command of ambiguity- he means everything and nothing, whether mourning John Ritter's death or mocking Saturday Night Live, Lennon's emotional head-fakes keep you guessing. On Radical, the concept is a bit looser than usual but touches on our perceptions of fame and success. The opener, "Secret Band", concerns the issue of underground bands being more easily accessible in the internet age, and the effect on their mystique ("this information is hard to get/it's not even on the internet/and the thing the amp does/is the closest that they ever get to buzz/music not on demand/don't spread the word, it's a secret band").
And the closer, "Song for Caveh Zahedi", documents the underground director's lack of expected success and laments a vicious review by Newsday's Jay Carr of Zahedi's semi-autobiographical film, I Am a Sex Addict, in which Zahedi plays the title character with a jones for prostitutes. This has more than one effect; the genuinely mournful, reflective tune shows Lennon's sympathy and empathy for Zahedi, both as a metaphor for his own life and success and for his creative role as a songwriter who barely conceals his life behind conceits.
A few of the songs in between concern the identity of the American college student; "Young People Need Guidance" is my current favorite. Lennon alternates between the dismissal of typically recommended life experience ("We don't need to go abroad our spring semester/and we don't need to trek through Europe one summer/we don't need those things") and affecting asides ("It's one thing to be young/it feels good to be young this time of year") that hit deeper for being in the middle of the list-making exercise, for shifting tone and point of view. That the ringing chord changes and soaring, multi-tracked chorus vocals score high on the nostalgia-pop meter makes it all the more improbably great.
Buy Radical here.