Jonathan Richman – Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow

Jonathan Richman
Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow

Depending on how much of a punk-rock completist you are, you’ve probably come across the name of Jonathan Richman as being one of the forerunners of the punk’s primitive, back-to-the-basics-aesthetic. Of course, you could have been introduced to him through his cameo in There’s Something About Mary, in which case you might be wholly unaware of his influence. Either way, there is little denying the substantial impact his one-of-a-kind artistry has had on music as a whole. His debut, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, was such a watershed release that only a few years later the Sex Pistols would be recording Richman’s rendition of “Road Runner,” and crowds of mohawked kids were gathering at his concerts.
The strange thing was, though, in those few intervening years his musical journey had already taken a hard turn away from the sexually frustrated youth of “Astral Plane” and “Pablo Picasso” and taken him to performing songs so gloriously silly so as to leave punk rock kids completely dumbfounded. As paeans to abominable snowmen, broken-down cars, and ice cream men were presented with such childish glee as to put a smile on even the hardest cynic’s face, Richman moved into decidedly different territory. The primitive driving rock was replaced by stripped-down acoustic pop, owing much more to the golden age of 1950’s rock than the Velvet Underground, whose music he’d been so enamored with as a youth that he’d run away from home and taken up residence with their manager.
That’s pretty much where Richman has been for the last 20 years, cranking out album after album of catchy, generally low-key rock and roll, falling somewhere between Brill Building pop, rockabilly, and doo-wop. And it has mostly been wonderful. Detours into country and Spanish music have provided interesting asides, but he has always returned to his gift for romantic and conversational ditties that hasn’t been blunted from years of touring and band splits. Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow picks up where all the others left off, Richman singing the praises of the simple pleasure of life and the people he shares it with.
Having slid past the age of 50 this year, most of Richman’s topics are life-affirming love songs, paying tribute to the constancy and wonder of love like a starry-eyed teenager in the inviting title track and the delicate balladry of “I Took a Chance on Her.” The naïve humor that dominated some of the past albums rarely turns up here, instead giving way to unflinchingly warm picturesque odes to changing seasons (“Springtime in New York”) and the natural trials of relationships (“Couples Must Fight”). Solid, simple songs done the way that only Richman can, colored with the good-natured innocence that only a very select few songwriters ever discover.
As always, a few great grooves turn up. A reprisal from 1983’s Jonathan Sings, “Give Paris One More Chance” cruises along with one of his classic three-chord hooks, marching drums, and tight guitar solos. “Leaves on the Sidewalk After the Rain” finds a slight Everly Brothers feel, with backup vocals answering Richman’s adenoidal croon. Largely acoustic, with the occasional organ, violin, or woodwind instrument turning up, Richman has the uncanny ability to create songs that sound so familiar that you’ll swear you heard them somewhere before, and when you realize you haven’t, they cause you to kick yourself for not writing them first. Another example of his willingness to do the unexpected, Richman finishes off the album with a return to Spanish songcraft, with four songs injected with the same sturdy Latin rhythms and instrumentation that colored 1994’s Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar!
Obviously, Jonathan Richman probably isn’t going to be the flavor of the month any time soon. But the simple, enduring truths of his music – the joy of life, love, and home – are revealed with minimal listens. Notoriously hard to interview for his great reluctance to answer any questions even remotely delving into his personal life, albums like this serve as a great reminder that he isn’t really trying to hide himself. All you need to know about him is presented in his songs – and few artists have allowed us to know them so intimately.