“To me, sophistication and jail have a lot in common,” Jonathan Richman once said, and it’s a mission statement that continues to guide his career. Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love is an uncompromising set of lovable acoustic Richman eccentricity, with not a hint of sophistication in sight, from the inept single string guitar solo on “Vincent Van Gogh” to the delightful banality of “My Baby Love Love Loves Me”, on which he apparently set out to write the most hopeless demo the Brill Building ever rejected. Now well into his fifties, his voice still sounds like that of an awkward adolescent, and he continues to play the chord sequence he learnt from La Bamba and hasn’t seen fit to vary since.
Of course, simplicity is a high art form and, beneath the apparent primitivism, Richman knows exactly what he’s doing. His song about Abu-Jamal, who’s been on Death Row in America for 20 years, is a case in point. It’s a serious subject and yet, at first, Richman seems to be trivialising it as, to the accompaniment of an Ivor Cutler-style wheezing harmonium, he sings what appears to be a collection of inappropriately throwaway lines about Abu-Jamal’s plight.
But as he goes on to urge us to add our voices to the freedom protest, it emerges as a potent modern-day folk ballad.
Richman once named a song after Pablo Picasso?who “was never called an asshole”. Here we get songs in honour of Vincent Van Gogh (“the most awful painter since Jan Vermeer”) and Salvador Dali (“when I was 14 he was there for me”). “He Gave Us The Wine To Taste It” is a wonderfully bibulous tribute to the pleasures of the vine and a neat attack on wine snobs (“don’t criticise and waste it”), while “The World Is Showing Its Hand” is a daft tribute to the enlightenment that can be found in unpleasant odours. And those are the more ‘regular’ songs. Then come such oddities as “Sunday Afternoon”, an acoustic instrumental that owes much to “Groovin'”, and ditties sung in Italian and French for no apparent reason other than that he can.
Weird, wonderful and life-affirmingly wise.
Typically unadorned, quirky new album from cult hero