While past Jonathan Richman albums have revealed the singer to be many things -- Velvet Underground groupie, interstate situationist, champion of affection, eater with gusto -- his newest release adds another entry to that resumé: artist. The back cover sports his scrawled pastel depiction of an elfish figure seated on what might be either a tree stump or a fire hydrant, a colossus in miniature overlooking deserted suburban avenues awash in auroras of muted luster and fallen leaves.
This artistic affinity should come as no surprise to anyone even casually familiar with Richman's music; after all, this is the man who once paid tribute in song to both Picasso and van Gogh (who was never called an asshole and who loved color and let it show, respectively). Such a painterly approach serves as a panoramic backdrop to this album's title and opening track, "Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow." Feathery acoustic chords drift down, and a toy piano pings like the bells of an ice cream truck as Richman's vocals shuffle coyly along; he's awestruck by his muse, who "delights in the faded colors of night, just like I do." He sings similar poetic praise of "Springtime in New York," his voice shivering and sighing with pensive rapture as he recalls that time of year when "demolishing a building brings the smell of 1890 to the breeze." Never one to beat around the lyrical bush, Richman shows little semantic equivocation with titles such as "Couples Must Fight," "Maybe a Walk Home From Natick High School" and "Leaves on the Sidewalk After the Rain." The imagery is flush with the bashful passion of the everyday. The doo-wop-inflected "Tonight" is a bracing shot of aching pop purity in which Richman pines, "Tonight makes me feel sixteen years old/Not happy for tomorrow, but happy for tonight," concisely summing up his entire nostalgia-with-the-top-down ontology.
Richman began his career over thirty years ago as the leader of edgy proto-punk messiahs the Modern Lovers -- ex-post-facto legends that wound up being the farm team for future members of the Real Kids, the Cars and Talking Heads. His erratic power-pop pulse has stabilized since then, though his sweat-soaked live shows are still equal parts dance party, therapy session and new-age revival. (Richman performs March 2 at the Bluebird Theater.) After his dubious newfound fame as the Chaplinesque troubadour in 1998's There's Something About Mary, he now seems to be most recognized as a mugged-up postmodern goof -- which is funny only in the sense that Richman possesses about as much willful irony as does Norman Rockwell. Even his endearingly laughable stabs at warbling in Spanish on the last four tracks of Her Mystery unconsciously conjure a time when pop vocalists sang such novelty as a legitimate form of expression (e.g., Eartha Kitt's half-purred French or Tiny Tim's pidgin autism).
Much as Van Morrison did with "Brown Eyed Girl," Richman strums into being a self-contained romantic universe that operates under its own idiosyncratic logic. His is a place where true love means cruising the Cézanne room at the museum, pleading for tenderness and helping your girlfriend's mom bring out the pancakes. He has always flirted with the periphery of underground convention while managing to remain aloof from it, setting in motion everyone from the Sex Pistols to the Violent Femmes to Beat Happening to Pavement to the Strokes, bypassing pop culture's cycles of planned obsolescence with a doe-eyed naiveté as lithe and unwrinkled as Jonathan himself. Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow is yet another self-portrait of a young man who refuses to grow up or old, one more addition to his all-too-personal gallery of impressionistic still lifes and faded snapshots clutched close to the heart.