The old adage states that you have your whole life to write your first album and then six months to write the second, which accounts for the so-called “sophomore slump.” I’m not sure what the average is for writing songs for third albums, but it’s usually known as the “difficult third,” meaning that most artists have to right whatever wrongs were committed with their sophomore efforts. Well, in the case of popmeister Marshall Crenshaw, he really didn’t experience that dreaded slump. Oh sure, Field Day did not get quite the same reviews as his self-titled debut (which, by the way, is one of the most perfect pop albums in the history of recorded music), and yes, due to the somewhat sterile production by Steve Lillywhite, it has always lived in its predecessor’s shadow. Plus, who the hell was responsible for that album cover? Was Warner Bros. hoping to only sell records to 8th grade science teachers? No wonder why the album stiffed. Cheesy artwork notwithstanding, though, Field Day was an exceptional effort, filled with everything that made Crenshaw’s debut so well-loved – memorable songs, terrific singing and playing, and pop hooks to die for. He proved with both albums that he was an extremely gifted songwriter, who truly understood and mastered the craft of composing. To put it simply, this man knows his way around a song.
Still, what can seem exciting and fresh the first or second time around can quickly turn into a tired formula if an artist isn’t careful. Crenshaw seemed to understand this, and sought to head in a slightly different direction with his next release, 1985’s Downtown. With the help of roots-rock producer/songwriter/singer T-Bone Burnett, and without longtime bandmembers, Chris Donato on bass and brother Robert on drums (though he turns up on two songs), Crenshaw loosened up, and went for broke, as it were, with the help of several studio pros. He may have also known that chart-topping hits were, unfortunately, not in his future, and mostly refrained from writing such ultra-commercial tunes. These songs may have lacked the innocent charm and catchy melodies of the first two albums, but they rocked with greater intensity, went more introspective and quiet on the ballads, and showed more of his influences (roots-rock and country). He also seemed to lose some of that boyish vulnerability in his singing, but he grew more mature, which is just part of the aging process; not to mention a bit darker in mood.
The album kicks off with the rockabilly-leaning “Little Wild One (No. 5)” – somewhat subdued on the verses but speeding up in the chorus – growing more intense and rocking toward the end of the song. He seems looser here than on albums past and let’s his 1950s rock ‘n’ roll side shine through more forcefully than he has up until now. Perhaps Burnett is responsible for pushing Crenshaw in this direction. Perhaps not. Either way, it works wonderfully. Without pulling a Mick Jagger macho move, he sounds a bit tougher and less geeky than we’ve heard him sound prior to this, but it never comes across in a contrived manner. It’s simply another side to our ol’ boy.
The next song, “Yvonne,” has a cool rockin’ feel to it and features members of NRBQ helping out. It’s not as memorable as a lot of his songs but it sounds just fine nonetheless. Then comes the one song not co-produced by Burnett, the power pop delight, “Blues Is King,” and it’s probably the closest he comes to sounding like the Marshall of the first two albums. It’s an extremely catchy song with a soaring, anthemic chorus, co-produced by Mitch Easter, and should have been a major league hit. After a couple of listens, it will burrow its way into your brain forever, with Marshall showing once again that he is the master of the pop hook. It sounds a bit out of place on this album, though, due to the difference in Easter’s production style, but considering it’s the best song on the album, we’ll gladly overlook that.
“Terrifying Love” is another winner, which surprisingly, for Crenshaw, features Burnett playing an understated electric sitar. It adds a slightly new dimension to his sound.
The remainder of the album doesn’t feature as many memorable songs, but there’s still some winners, to be sure. “Like a Vague Memory” (with its country underpinnings), “Lesson Number One” and Ben Vaughan’s “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” all show Marshall in a more subdued, introspective light. They are each heartfelt and moving ballads. He rocks out a bit more on “We’re Gonna Shake Up Their Minds” and “Right Now,” again showing off his 1950s roots-rock influences to fine effect.
The album might not contain as many memorable songs, or outright classics, as on its predecessors, but every song here is a winner, and with its warm, organic production style (always a Burnett trademark), it’s certainly another must-have for any Crenshaw fan. It was probably his last thoroughly enjoyable album – at least until 1996’s indie-released Miracle of Science. On his next few albums, he seemed to lose his way a bit, relying heavily on cover songs, and perhaps trying too hard to get that ever-elusive hit (though that’s probably more Warner Bros. fault). This album didn’t sell – no news there. It’s more than held up over the past 25 years, though, and proved Crenshaw was here to stay. In my book, that beats instant, fleeting chart success any day.