Now that we’ve achieved a little distance from the alt/rock of the ‘90s and its tenor of dark confession and caterwauling catharsis, inevitably we start to question the authenticity of all that “I really mean it” screaming in the same way that we might question the romantic ardor and torment of the Elizabethan sonneteers. It’s not that they weren’t really in love or that Stella and Beatrice weren’t beautiful; it’s that time reveals the extent to which art and expression are colored by period convention and the virus of style. One commonplace convention, in Renaissance poetry as in hip hop, is the claim of being “real” beyond convention. Grunge was fond of that sentiment, too.
Even the seminal, scene-birthing screaming of ’89 and ’90 (you know whom I am talking about) sounds a little suspect and stylized to these ears, these days, to say nothing of all the bandwagoneering of the decade’s middle. But it is on us to separate our babies from our bathwaters, to pick through the piles of art and artifice and find the stuff that was not “real” but rather “good.” You already know Tracy Bonham’s megahit “Mother, Mother,” but let’s honor it for a moment anyway, lest this masterful bit of multileveled songwriting gets filed alongside all the inferior, disingenuous and trend-glomming grungecraft of its period.
“Mother, Mother” is a one-sided daughter-to-mother phone call, an electronic update on the tradition of the epistolary song. It has three sections with three distinct levels of expression, each mapped to a corresponding musical dynamic. On top of a chromatically descending progression and a vaguely menacing mariachi flavor, the verses deliver a thin layer of pleasantries and lies: I am fine, healthy, the same girl you always knew. When the heavy grunge hits in the pre-chorus, text gives way to subtext and subversion: I am saying these things because I know they are what you need to hear, and you couldn’t bear the truth of how I am living and who I am becoming.
Then in the song’s signature moment, the truth leaks out, quietly at first: “I’m hungry. I’m dirty. I’m losing my mind.” But when all pretense finally crumbles, when the singing gives way to screaming in a classic, zero-to-ten dynamic revelation, it is not the raw truth that gets screamed but rather a mad, pitiful attempt to salvage the lie: “Everything’s fine!” Yeah, you know the moment. How could you not? It was a conceptual hook of such devastating, irresistible power that one can imagine Bonham thinking, “Please don’t let me screw this up in recording” as she finished writing it. Screw it up in recording they did not.
It might have been misconstrued as novelty hit, were its spark not so ably borne out by the rest of her excellent debut album, The Burdens of Being Upright. That level of care – the thoughtful coordination of lyrical and musical intent – is to be found in all of Bonham’s adventurous work. It’s just her thing.
The story goes that the four-year wait between the Burdens of Being Upright and its worthy follow-up, 2000’s Down Here, was just long enough to sort of displace her in culture-time and culture-space and thwart her commercial viability. As a burning violinist and versatile multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, she has done fine as a side- and session-person while she continues to craft her songs and make her exquisite albums on those scaled-back 21st-century terms. Having attended her work in the new millennium closely, I will tell you this with conviction: As a writer, arranger and album-maker, Tracy Bonham has gotten better and better.
Truly, the alt/rock period, and specifically that Cobain melodic and harmonic kernel, informs much of Bonham’s work. People often point to P. J. Harvey as a direct influence, but Bonham is neither as provocative lyrically nor as musically naive as Polly Jean. Bonham carved out a unique place where a visceral grunge primitivism meets a broad, pop-based musical sophistication that can lean Beatles or lean jazz and soul.
Her two most recent releases are her two best records, and for opposite reasons. 2005’s Blink the Brightest is expansive, deliriously detailed production rock. On 2010’s The Masts of Manhatta she chases and catches a kind of trashy cabaret vibe à la Tom Waits, in part by working with Waits’s occasional sidemen Smokey Hormel and Andrew Borger.
Tracy Bonham’s recent work makes as good a case as I have seen for why you stick with your favorites long after the big eye has looked away. They get better is why. And you wouldn’t want to miss that.
An Evening with Tracy Bonham, Friday, November 8, 8 p.m., $25/$20/$10, Unison Arts Center, 68 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz.