As an ensemble, The Modern Lovers only represent the prologue of Jonathan Richman's career, a brief collective effort that would shortly segue into an array of solo releases occasionally accompanied by an '& The Modern Lovers' credit that referred to a faceless backing band as opposed to a full-fledged rock group. Nevertheless, most would contend that as far as historical significance is concerned this early stage of Richman's rock and roll legacy eclipses every subsequent project he embarked upon, dwarfing his later efforts with its unparalleled impact on the development and evolution of rock music as an art form.
Even more remarkably, The Modern Lovers achieved this feat without ever releasing a true album. Rather, their eponymous outing consists of a collection of demos recorded in the early seventies and released by their record label; taken in this context, the influential status of the band is a true testament to the potency of these rough, unpolished recordings.
Indeed, the historical significance of The Modern Lovers can't be stressed enough, as their lone album offers tremendous insight and clarity into the transition from the stripped down art rock of The Velvet Underground, Richman's primary influence, to the genesis of punk music as a genre.
While it's something of a cliché to cite The Velvet Underground as The Modern Lovers' chief influence, it's also an indisputable fact; Richman spent some of his early years following the band, and due to this association the legendary John Cale himself produced the majority of the demos contained in this collection. The spare, minimalist style of The Velvet Underground informs much of The Modern Lovers work, and while these elements were adapted to better suit Richman's unique persona and abilities the connection is still always apparent.
Richman lacked Lou Reed's intelligence, insight and complexity as well as John Cale's experimentalism, and thus what The Modern Lovers' inherited from the seminal art rock outfit was their stripped down, bare bones approach to rock and roll. In this regard The Modern Lovers almost functioned as a medium for proto-punk music to pass through, filtering out elements like The Velvet Underground's artistry that would clash with the ethos and aesthetics of punk music as a whole.
The minimalism of The Modern Lovers isn't the elegant, lyrical minimalism of JJ Cale or Dire Straits, but rather the primitivism of later punk acts like The Ramones. Comparisons to The Ramones extend well beyond their spare approach, as there's a certain innate, disarming innocence in Richman's work that no amount of sarcasm or irreverence can dilute, just as the attitude and rebelliousness of The Ramones could never mask the group's inherently quixotic, almost wholesome nature.
Nevertheless, while The Modern Lovers were instrumental in inspiring the punk movement they were still far removed from that scene in most respects. Richman's concerns are confined to his personal life, devoid of any contumacious, anti-establishment tendencies. Throughout the album, Richman remains either oblivious or indifferent to the political machinations of his times, far more interested in his love life than rebelling against oppressive authority figures.
Thus the album The Modern Lovers is an essential historical document, a designation that's completely at odds with the slight, immature character of the collection. Throughout the record Richman is almost defiantly childish, expending his artistic energies on extolling the virtues of modern life and bemoaning the lack of substance in his romantic entanglements. The album simply doesn't sound like a cutting-edge, revolutionary product, providing a listening experience that sounds deceptively shallow and inconsequential.
Further inspection, however, begins to reveal the album's greater depth. As I've alluded to the lyrical scope of the album is restricted to Richman's personal whims, but even this innocuous adolescent poetry distinguishes itself from much of the music of the era. Hot on the heels of the counterculture hedonism and decadence that culminated in 1969, Richman decries the superficiality of casual sex and rampant drug use, declaring that 'he's straight' with a vehemence that borders on self-martyrdom. While this hardly makes for intellectually compelling verse, it does take a daring stance, one that differentiates The Modern Lovers from many of their contemporaries by forcefully severing rock music's ties with the 'summer of love.'
It's the music, however, that truly makes The Modern Lovers a seminal proto-punk experience. As I'd stated, the music is highly primitive, with basic structures and sparse arrangements. The songwriting, while quite catchy, is aggressively basic, with the garage-rock edge that characterized many of the more prominent punk acts that followed in its wake.
Essentially The Modern Lovers take the stripped down style of The Velvet Underground and marry it to a more basic, direct rock context. While there are certainly elements of art rock in Richman's work they're divorced from the lyrical and musical complexity of Reed and company, with no intimidating minimalist epics like Sister Ray or avant garde experiments like European Son. Thus the intellectual and inaccessible elements of The Velvet Underground that could prove to be stumbling blocks for the focused, compact and immediate venom of the punk movement have been purged, leaving a skeletal framework that could easily be adapted to the workingman's aggression that dominated the late seventies.
Thus a seemingly mild, straightforward listening experience became fraught with implications and meanings that sparked a musical revolution, but this only explains the historical connotations of the album, ignoring its actual merit as a work of art, or at least entertainment. The fact of the matter is that The Modern Lovers is a highly entertaining album, filled with catchy songwriting and plentiful hooks.
While the opener, Roadrunner, was indeed subsequently covered by The Sex Pistols (a rendition that mostly lacked vocals, as Johnny Rotten apparently neither knew nor cared what the lyrics were), it's in fact a charming, lightweight rocker, wholly bereft of the anger and self-importance of that notorious punk outfit.
Astral Plane is amusing, while Old World is a pleasantly nostalgic tune, leading to a definite highlight in the form of Pablo Picasso. While I actually prefer Bowie's recent reworking of the song, the original is a stellar track in its own right, a basic but infectious rocker that boasts one of the heaviest arrangements on the album. The song is quite catchy, complete with inventive vocal hooks and memorable, eminently quotable lyrics that may not be as clever as Richman seems to imagine they are, but are still endearing in the long run.
She Cracked brings attention to the fact that many of the songs on the album adhere to a similar sound and formula, but also proves that this style is sufficiently engaging that it can, as long as it's well implemented, remain engrossing for the duration of the record. Hospital does break new ground, however, emerging as one of the only tracks on the album that can actually be somewhat moving. The song may ultimately be somewhat generic and predictable, but its sincerity and emotional honesty invests a measure of power in the track that enables it to transcend its familiarity and lyrical shortcomings.
Someone I Care About is, like many tracks on the album, a song that in other hands would be generic and nondescript, but once again the band's idiosyncratic delivery makes for a compelling, entertaining listening experience. Its counterintuitive (for its time, that is) lyrics, pleading for a relationship that's about more than carnality and eroticism, embodies the off-kilter spirit of the album, which accounts for much of the charm of The Modern Lovers as a whole.
Girlfriend is another song that largely gets by through its charming innocence, though admittedly Richman's intentional misspelling of the title during the track could prove detrimental to the intellectual development of any younger listeners, while Modern World features more of the band's adoration and passion for all things new, a theme that pervades the entire album.
Dignified & Old is mellow and sweet, a combination that isn't inherently positive but in The Modern Lovers' hands tends to make for an enjoyable diversion, while I'm Straight is a bona fide classic, a moody tune with brilliant vocal hooks and catchy music accompanied by Richman's insistent mantra announcing his straight-edge lifestyle, a declaration delivered with verve and conviction that surpasses his performance on any other track on the album.
Government Center is bouncy and likeable, I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms is another solid number and Dance With Me seems like an attempt to ape a different side of Velvet Underground, but one that Richman and company are decidedly less suited for, making for a lesser if inoffensive song.
Sadly the alternate cuts of Someone I Care About, Modern World and Roadrunner are completely extraneous, adding little of note to those already strong tracks, but their presence certainly doesn't detract from the album as a whole.
Thus there's certainly a dichotomy between The Modern Lovers' value as a historical relic and an entertaining listening experience, as most will opt to harp on the former to the exclusion of the latter, but the album is still sufficiently strong that it can't be completely overshadowed by the analytical scrutiny of rock historians. The album is simply immensely entertaining, and in the long run I prefer Jonathan Richman the performer and songwriter to Jonathan Richman the musical revolutionary.