Over the last year a rift has grown between me and Jeremy. A musical rift, anyway. His tastes are getting younger, blacker, and more brash. Mine are getting older, whiter and more stately. I’m not too happy about it. Last June we were bopping along to Mick Jenkins together. Now Jeremy is spazzing to scratchy XXXTentacion Soundcloud clips, while I’m in my room softly humming along to Brandi Carlile.
I don’t know what the fuck he’s going through, but I can tell you that lately I want my life to be clean. I just wanna hear simple, pinpoint melodies. I want choruses I can sing along to the first listen and the twenty fifth. I want big, clearly worded truths. Cut out all the other bullshit.
And while I hate white dudes as much as the next person, two of them have been competing for my headspace. One is a 66-year-old Floridian, the other an 18-year-old from the U.K. They both write unabashedly dopey songs that could be from 1985 or 2021–they’re nearly review-proof because of how contented and middlebrow they are. But it’s those qualities that make them so valuable to me as I enter the bloated expanse of adulthood.
I didn’t know who Tom Petty was before he played the Super Bowl. He looked like a hippie caricature, shaggy blonde hair floating over eyes that are either deadened or kindly harmless. I’ve since learned that he might be the best American songwriter post-1980. And not because of any creative ambition: the man has essentially been writing the same song over again for 40 years.
This is not a poet who uses metaphors or diversions. “Let’s get to the point, and let’s roll another joint,” he warbles on “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” The title, and the chorus, are a kind of anti-confessional, an expression of inexpression. But there’s no surer declaration of identity than those warm piano chords and squarely stomping bass drum. They sound they way it feels to land perfectly in the middle of a giant trampoline.
I saw Tom Petty at Forest Hills Stadium last week; his band, the Heartbreakers, muscled through the air with lush guitarwork, extended blues jams and dad jokes. But for all of its inoffensive, aw-shucks charm, the concert gave me chills. Because just below the surface, Petty lives in an endless summer of discontent. Where relaxation and boredom flow in and out of each other, and love is the best and worst thing you could encounter. Where any mundane moment could be right before the climax of a white hot pursuit–of a one-night stand or a lifelong dream. Why bother with more than four chords or musical innovation when even the simplest parts of life itself are endlessly complex?
A similarly quiet resignation runs through Declan McKenna’s debut album, “What Do You Think About the Car?” The album arrived a couple weeks ago to ecstatically lukewarm fanfare. “Scattershot and often lackluster,” Pitchfork raved. The scraggly, pockmarked McKenna isn’t particularly handsome or charismatic or good at singing–he’s not particularly anything. What he is, is a professional-grade songwriter who writes fully-formed songs and arrangements, some of which regrettably deal in vague, callow idealism, but the best of which create epics out of the most minute questions of self.
“Make Me Your Queen,” an album standout, glides along in a sweet-and-sour dance between major and minor, much like Tom Petty’s “You’re So Bad.” Both songs are wonderfully plain; they amplify small conflict in romance to huge proportions, yet are cozy in their insecurity. McKenna’s lyrics are dominated by sense of worthlessness. But when he sings the vague bridge (“It’s all too much to take / I’m awake / I’m awake”) his magisterial Oasis-y arrangement, bright-eyed and soaring, shows exactly what he has to offer.
McKenna, like Petty again, treats every part of a song like a hook; there’s a radical concision to his writing, even when he draws from Paul Simon’s verbosity or Vampire Weekend’s ornateness. There are some good songs and some bland songs on “What Do You Think About The Car,” and many of them run together. That’s okay. The same is true for almost all of Petty’s albums. And now he’s worth $95 million, but more importantly, he imbues the everyday with torment and wonder. McKenna is well on his way to doing the same.