Marshall Crenshaw's indisputable pop skills are the result of a talented artist keeping his ears glued to the AM radio for 20 years, extracting and assimilating every melodic trick that Lennon and McCartney or Carole King and Gerry Goffin ever turned.
On his eponymous debut album, Crenshaw the songwriter justified the endless Buddy Holly and Beatle references. His second album, "Field Day" (Warner Bros. 23873-1), suggests that Crenshaw the artist has adopted a somewhat less satisfying role. True, in a single chiming guitar figure, he can still sweep you off your feet and have your head in the clouds. In a single song he can still conjure up romantic skies as fluffy as cotton candy and with melodies as sticky.
Not surprisingly, Robert Gordon, Lou Anne Barton, Bette Midler and others have rushed in to cover Crenshaw's treasures. After all, he is the new pop wunderkind, an artist who should own the radio. Yet despite the jangly jubilation and unshakable momentum of his single, "Cynical Girl," radio play has not materialized in any significant way. While this may seem confusing, one of the revelations of "Field Day" is that Crenshaw is really an album artist, whose art lies in linking five songs into one breathless and evocative side of pop escapism. If both sides of his debut album worked as extended spring-time fantasies, only side 1 of "Field Day" is as effortlessly uplifting.
"Marshall Crenshaw" was a joyous discovery because it possessed an ingenuous commitment to the magic of romance and the pop song--a nostalgic, if not reactionary, creation in the context of the new rock music. It stood as a disarming pleasure in an era of unrelenting artistic self-revelation and indulgence, in which brutal frankness, in style and message, have outweighed the virtues of a graceful and captivating piece of fluff. One of the reasons "Field Day" simply could not match the triumph of his debut is that Crenshaw has already cleared the artistic fog once with his breezy enchantments.
This time not even Sherlock Holmes could track down Crenshaw the person among the vague and dreamy urges, promises and regrets that fill his songs. Everything is about romance, but the search for a real woman, a concrete, physical detail or a pulse of hate, revenge, lust or even passion is fruitless. Crenshaw may even be owning-up, in "Our Town," when he admits, "But all I have is pictures running through my mind." In a sense, Crenshaw's romantic fixation and his devotion to the universal and elegant lyric connect him to the sophisticated, gossamer-like song tradition of Tin Pan Alley. The smooth and airy hits of Hal David and Burt Bacharach would serve as truer models of his art than Holly or the Beatles. After all, they rocked with a passion, edge and identity Crenshaw has yet to develop.
But for all the rock 'n' roll carping that can be leveled at Crenshaw, as a pop rhapsodist he is mostly successful on "Field Day." While there is nothing here as memorable as "Cynical Girls," there are some gems. "Whenever You're on My Mind" sets side 1 on the buoyant, yet gently rocking course that is Crenshaw's forte. Right away he evokes his lyrical vantage point, crooning "I leave the world behind whenever you're on my mind," and then offers his decidedly unphysical version of love, admitting "It seems to be reverie, you're here with me."
The ringing guitars of "Our Town" and "One More Reason" keep things on the same mesmerizing, musical merry-go-round, before slowing down for "Try." One of the album's standouts, this soft, harmonic piece is full of pliant harmonies that have the comforting impact of a head falling onto a big, soft pillow. In a pop world full of explicitly physical or outright vulgar evocations of passion, there's something perfectly understated, genuinely affectionate and old-fashioned in Crenshaw's confession, "The way you move me is a serious thing." Unfortunately, with the exception of a wondrous post-doo wop cover of the Jive Five's "What Time Is It," side 2 lacks the songs to cast the same light, aching-heart spell as side 1.
Steve Lillywhite's production hasn't changed Crenshaw's sound dramatically, although Richard Gottherer's work on the first album more clearly evoked the '60s pop pizazz and rockabilly touches that are Crenshaw's roots. Having heard the hard-rocking cover of Cliff Richard's "Move It," which Crenshaw performs live, or the flip side of his new single, a comic slab of rockabilly called "Jungle Rock," it's clear Crenshaw should broaden the narrow range of style and attitude his albums cover. It's also clear that this shy boy-next-door is going to have to step from behind those gracious melodies and flash a few personal touches sooner or later. Crenshaw's career is hardly in danger, but his current path could render him no more moving than a glass of champagne--a quick, exhilarating rush to the head and heart, but nothing to move deeper levels of the soul and body.