November 13, 2014

Michael Chabon, pop lyricist


"Shit, what rhymes with "thanatopsis". Image via Wikipedia.

“Shit, what rhymes with “thanatopsis”. Image via Wikipedia.

Mark Ronson’s usually mentioned in the same breath as Amy Winehouse. He’s the guy who produced Winehouse’s hits, but he’s also worked with a raft of other notables (Nas, McCartney, Adele) and his solo albums are super enjoyable Just Bunches compendia of effortless pop collaborations. So why are we writing about him in MobyLives? Is it because he wrote a song about bikes and we’re in Brooklyn, where people apparently use bikes? Is it because his hyper-twee marriage proposal to Rashida Jones was ultimately a failure, and we’re big fans of failure? Is it because he looks like someone who would be found working for an indie publisher in Brooklyn? No, no, and maybe.

But really, it’s because of Michael Chabon. The New York Times ArtsBeat reports that the Pulitzer winner was commissioned to write for Ronson’s new album; reportedly, half the songs contain Chabon’s lyrics. In the type of glitterati vignettes that the Times does so well, the paper reminds us that rich and famous people with rich and famous friends can just decide creative things with other rich and famous people and that’s kind of what drives most industries, actually, come to think of it. In this case, Ronson was a fan of Kavalier and Klay, so the next logical step was of course to write pop songs with the author.

Why not write to Mr. Chabon…and invite him to write lyrics for Mr. Ronson’s next album? Mr. Chabon took the bait. He has written lyrics for half the songs on Mr. Ronson’s “Uptown Special,” his fourth album – and his first since 2010’s Record Collection – which is due in January.

We should all be glad that Ronson was a fan of a novelist as earnest and palatable as Chabon. I don’t want to imagine a pop album with lyrics by Jonathan Franzen…wait. I take that back. I’m imagining that now and it sounds amazing. “Someone get Franzen on the phone!” I say, in my daydreams.

Chabon wrote a really great (and shockingly low-stakes) novel about music in Telegraph Avenue, and it’s REALLY hard to write about music without lapsing into wrongheaded romanticism or lazy impressionism. Chabon pulled it off, but the quality of previous novelists-turned-lyricists projects is all over the place.

On the good side: Kin, by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell. Yes, okay, Karr’s not technically a novelist, but whatever. Kin’s a fantastic album  – I saw Karr and Crowell perform it live at Joe’s Pub and it was pure gold. And like Ronson’s album, it was stuffed with guests, so you got a number of gifted voices to shape Karr’s expert imagery. It’s a wildly good album and you should all listen to it right now so you can be cool like me.

But on the other side, you’ve got Lonely Avenue by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, which the less said about the better. It’s about as interesting and colorful as a post office bucket.

There’s no denying Ronson or Chabon’s talent with their chosen medium, and their ability to please crowds. I like Mark Ronson because he’s ear candy, and Chabon because he makes word candy (I don’t care what anyone says, you’re all haters and I’m rising above you like the parrot in that 12-page sentence Chabon wrote that one time). So I hope that their collaboration doesn’t cancel itself out and end up being a lighter shade of meh. Because that means I’m officially old.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.