More than likely, if you know his name, you're thinking one of three things:
1: Isn't he Sean Penn's brother?
(Well, yes, but, so what?)
2: He's married to Aimee Mann, isn't he?
(Also, yes. Not really "So what?" as they've toured together in an act they called "Acoustic Vaudeville," which was amazing. And if you like Ms. Mann, you'll likely like Mr. Penn, as, however compatible they may be relationship-wise, they are easily as compatible musically.)
3: Didn't he do that song about Romeo in Black Jeans?
(Well, OK, yes. But it's called "No Myth," and while it was his biggest hit, and a fine, fine song, it doesn't begin to encapsulate the literacy, the quirky humor, the melodic beauty and the insight and intelligence that make Michael Penn such a force to be reckoned with.)
How to sum up Michael Penn? In a sentence? it can't be done, but to get you in the neighborhood, imagine that John Lennon and Bob Dylan were married, had a son, and then engaged in an incredibly protracted and bitter divorce, over the course of several years, during the whole of which they threw every dirty trick in the book at one another, including trying to turn their son against one another. Imagine that boy growing up, more intelligent than either of his fathers, bitter, cynical, and tremendously talented, to become a singer-songwriter.
That's not exactly Michael Penn, but the cynicism and wit and verbal brilliance implied in my dark little tale come close, and the melodic hookiness, to boot.
A little more than a year ago, he came out with a truly amazing album called "Mr. Hollywood, Jr, 1947." Yesterday, a "re-mastered" version of that album was re-issued, with a bonus disc featuring six tracks recorded live at about the same time. Also released yesterday was, not so much a "Best of" collection, but a nicely eclectic retrospective of his work, "Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea." This will get you 20 cuts for your $12.95, including "No Myth," but also wonders like "Don't Let Me Go" a bipolar love song that is truly terrifying, "Cupid's got a Brand New Gun," an overview of love that Ambrose Bierce would heartily endorse -- and, want to talk literate? Here's the chorus:
Not till it turns away
Do you feel the pain
Of all the damage done
And you may notice that
This quick opiate
Might wear the wings of angels
That's when you realize
You've been shot down
Wounded unto death by something called love
-- and the extraordinary "I can tell," which is simply one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded.
"Mr. Hollywood Jr, 1947" begins, and "Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea" more or less ends with the same song, "Walter Reed." This song was written more than a year ago, but recent news has given it whole new levels of meaning. What a Michael Penn song is "about" is hard to say, like getting handfuls of smoke, but Michael talks about this song, and speaks of Walter Reed being the first point of treatment for homecoming soldiers suffering what used to be called "Shell Shock," and is now known as "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." A month or so after the song's release, the Pentagon announced that it was closing Walter Reed Army Hospital, and Penn noted on his MySpace blog that he found it sad and ironic that when the nation was in the throes of its own post-9/11 PTSD, the government was closing its hospital most famous for treating that ailment.
Now, of course, "Walter Reed" has whole new sets of associations, but I'd like to leave you with another viewpoint.
Between "Shell Shock" and "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," there was another name: "Battle Fatigue." Penn's songs, whatever else they are, are always personal, always about the individual, and about relationships. One of the themes he writes about are the battles we wage within ourselves and within our relationships, and how tiring those relationships are. I see that kind of personal "Battle Fatigue" in the chorus of "Walter Reed:"
Tell me now, what more do you need?
Take me to Walter Reed tonight
Baby, I've lost my will for fighting
So, I give you now, the Worlds best Singer/Songwriter, in a video that perfectly captures his tone and style.
Ladies And Gentlemen, Michael Penn performing "Walter Reed:"