The Imaginary Sophomore Slump
Sometimes the stars, the moon and the sun all align perfectly for a songwriter and they write a batch of songs that make you stand back in amazement at their utter brilliance. This is what happened when Marshall Crenshaw recorded his perfectly-realized, once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-equaled, self-titled debut album in 1982. Every song was an instant classic, with not a false note on the entire record. Songs like “Girls” (with its exquisitely-rendered harmonies), “There She Goes Again” and my own personal favorite, “Mary Anne” (to name just three), were wonders to behold, with melodies so logic-defyingly catchy, once lodged in your brain, they can never be forgotten. Yet, the album was unleashed onto a mostly-unimpressed listening public (though the critics ran out of superlatives when praising it in the music press). Remember, this was the age of Duran Duran and Culture Club, and Crenshaw, with his nerdy Buddy Holly look and sound, simply didn’t fit in with the whole burgeoning MTV ethos. He simply looked too clean-cut, boyish, and nice.
In a perfect world, every song on Marshall Crenshaw would have burned up the charts. Even the home-demo recording, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” relegated, unfairly, to a B-side, would have found a home on the radio (at least in a more polished version). But it wasn’t to be. And so in 1983 Crenshaw got down to the business of recording his sophomore album with big shot producer Steve Lillywhite (who helmed the first three U2 albums, among others) and made Field Day.
So how does this album compare to his debut? Well, if this is his so-called “sophomore slump,” then wouldn’t every songwriter like to be in a slump such as this? No, the album is not as perfect as the first. Lillywhite’s production is a bit heavy-handed at times, and clearly not the best choice for someone like Crenshaw (the production on the debut was always sympathetic to the song); clearly the drums could have been turned down in the mix – they are a little too loud for these types of songs – though compared to most of the over-produced, sterile albums coming out during the ‘80s, this one is almost minimally produced. And yes, some of the songs don’t quite equal the ones from the previous album. On top of that, there are only ten songs this time around – two less than before – though that’s mostly due to the longer running times of each.
Still, if the first album hadn’t existed, Field Day would have been looked at as what it was: a brilliant, melodic opus, filled with more than its share of perfect pop songs. Instead, it will forever, unfairly, have to live in the shadow of its slightly-superior predecessor. For anyone who first heard Crenshaw through this album, though, they would have been heaping the same kind of praise on him, as he was showered with the year before. This album had everything the debut had: great songs, wonderful performances, top-notch singing and arrangements. And looking back now, even the production doesn’t seem all that much different than the previous album – it just merely sounds like a slight concession to then-current radio considerations. Still, Field Day seemed to miss that last little extra bit of indefinable greatness that Marshall Crenshaw possessed in abundance. You find yourself humming these songs for weeks afterward, as opposed to months. But when it comes to songwriters and albums this good, it really does come across like mere nitpicking. Saying Field Day is not as good as the debut is like saying The Godfather Part II is not as good as the first Godfather – when it comes to that level of quality, nobody but the biggest fan would even notice.
First off, the album begins with one of his all-time greatest songs, “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” a song that had been kicking around since 1979. This is another one of his perfectly-written creations that should have made him a star. The song has everything you could want in a single: a memorable, catchy chorus, simple but effective lyrics, and absolute conciseness. It blew most of the songs that were clogging up the airwaves out of the water. Still, hit-making stardom eluded him nonetheless. Why this song didn’t make it to his debut is unexplainable. It’s just as good as any of the songs on there, and better than a few (as good as his version of “Soldier of Love” was, he should have relegated it to a B-side; he had enough good songs of his own).
“Our Town” is another winner, with a memorable chorus and great singing by Marshall, that could have been a hit (if only…). “One More Reason,” “For Her Love” and “Monday Morning Rock,” also, make very strong impressions. There clearly isn’t a bad song in the bunch, and despite the slightly gimmicky production on album closer “Hold It,” it’s almost impossible to say anything bad about this album.
It’s very easy to eventually run out of superlatives when writing about Marshall’s first two releases, and cross over into “gushing” territory. When it comes to Crenshaw, and this album, though, I’ll gladly gush. He really was that good. And if every artist goes through the so-called “sophomore slump,” nobody got the message to Crenshaw. Thank God.