MUSIC: The Perfect Songs, Part VII
Really, I meant to do this a little more often (I last did it in May, you say?!) but I am in the midst of being unemployed, moving 6,000 miles away and taking epic road trips after all. And chasing around a willful toddler. Anyway, here's another installment of songs that make it onto my personal mix CD for a desert island, songs that I never tire of no matter how many times I hear there. As always, my view, nobody else's, I may have terrible taste and so forth. Continuing the count with today's special "all 1990s version":
19. "Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinead O'Connor. Great pipes, crazy mind – that pretty much sums up my view of O'Connor, who blazed like a comet through the early 1990s with two great albums, then kind of dissolved into a muddle of controversy and half-hearted albums. This one song was the mega-hit that gave her stardom, but yet its hushed intimacy and unfettered honesty still are startling nearly 20 years on. When too many pop breakup songs these days sound like they were recorded by "American Idol" robots in a factory somewhere, there's still something sincere about Sinead's cover of this Prince song, in her voice breaks and fragile demeanor. It's a tough song to listen to because it reminds me of a different time and place, but then again all the good songs do, don't they? "It's been seven hours and fifteen days..."
20. "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," Elvis Costello. Admittedly, this is an obscure choice, hardly one of Costello's best-known songs and from one of his less-regarded albums, 1991's "Mighty Like A Rose." Yet there's something in this kaleidoscopic romp of a tune that really spoke to me back in '91, when I was a spastic college freshman. With this album EC tried every style of music he could in a frenzied wall of sound, from baroque Beach Boys pop to hushed ballads to fuzz-drenched rants. It may not be his best CD, but it's perhaps his most adventurous. This tune closes out the album, and it's a beautiful lament about the passing of time and keeping a little bit of hope in the face of it. It begins as a song of a fairy-tale girl in a castle, but Costello abruptly parts the curtains to take center stage – "Well you can laugh at this sentimental story / but in time you'll have to make amends" – before ducking back behind the scenes to continue his thoughts. Backed by a merry-go-round of calliope and accordion sounds, it's like the closing anthem at the end of a carnival, bittersweet and searching for truth. Dissonant and unbalanced, but yet heartfelt, it's the song of how things are never as they were. "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain / I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again."
21. "Heart-Shaped Box," Nirvana. Nirvana are kind of in a funny place in music history, I think. They were underrated, overrated, just plain "rated," and now it's still not quite clear what their music's legacy is – does the sad fate of Kurt Cobain still color how we think about the music? We critics love 'em, but does Joe Public still? Heck if I know. All I know is that even when Mr. Cobain was still with us, this jagged barbed-wire tangle of a love song was a favorite of mine – with its angular chords, shout-and-response chorus, and some of Cobain's darkest lyrics ever ("I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black"). With a title like "Heart-Shaped Box," it might be a typical love song, but Cobain's burning intensity nearly sears a hole right through the music. It's still a riveting testimony of self-destructive obsession, of a love so deep it's nearly indistinguishable from hate. It is, of course, a story of lost potential too. Aren't they all? "Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint / Forever in debt to your priceless advice."