Breaking up is hard to do. It's especially difficult if both parties are singer-songwriters whose profession makes their romantic problems part of the public record.
Already this year, we heard Richard and Linda Thompson dissect their divorce on solo albums. Now Carly Simon has turned her divorce into a solo album; James Taylor's rebuttal should be heard on his next album. John Doe and Exene Cervenka have attempted something even bolder: They have examined the wounds of their own troubled marriage on songs that they cowrote and sing together on the new album by the group X.
Doe and Cervenka did the same thing earlier this year with their other band, the Knitters. This band provides a country music outlet for Doe, Cervenka and the Blasters' Dave Alvin, all longtime honky-tonk fans. The Knitters' debut album, "Poor Little Critters on the Road," was at its strongest when Doe and Cervenka vented their romantic anguish through country romance that had little to do with stylistic revival and everything to do with emotional confession.
Done as a spry western swing tune on the Knitters' album, "Love Shack" becomes a crunching hard-rock tune on the new X album, "Ain't Love Grand" (Elektra, 60430-4). Either way, it captures the irony of the singer-songwriter in a public breakup: Writing a song about an ex-lover can be a wonderful release, but it can become quite uncomfortable if your partner does the same.
Cervenka sings of the eerie feeling that comes from dancing to forget the pain of a split-up only to hear her ex on the jukebox singing a song he wrote about her in happier times. In the Knitters' version, she's doing the Texas two-step; on the X version, she's slam-dancing. The heartache is the same in either case.
Hearing one's ex-lover on the jukebox may not be a common experience for the average record buyer, but nearly everyone has been haunted by an ex-lover in similar ways. The ironically titled "Ain't Love Grand" (with a black snake curling around a red rose on the cover) captures that haunting as well as any record could.
X's fifth album is its first without producer Ray Manzarek of the Doors; in his place is Michael Wagener, best known for producing the heavy metal band Accept. That sounds like a pefectly horrible idea, but it works out surprisingly well. The staccato punk beat of bands like X is not all that different from the heavy metal power chord, and Wagener gives X a bigger guitar sound and a harder beat than the band has ever had before.
The artistic nuances and self-references of past albums are sacrificed for a new streamlined clarity that nonetheless makes the band's basic assets more obvious than ever. Maybe this is the commercial breakthrough album X has been waiting for.
But it isn't a sellout. The irresistibly anthemic "Around My Heart" may have the makings of a hit single, but it also captures the anguish of having an ex-lover who refuses to come back and refuses to go away. There's no mistaking Doe's desperation when he cries, "Why do you want to throw another chain around my heart?"
Nor is there any mistaking the resentment in his voice when he lashes back at friends who keep asking him "What's Wrong With Me." Billy Zoom's dirty guitar and D.J. Bonebrake's thumping drums reinforce Doe's surly retort: "None of your goddam business." Nor can anyone miss the lonely resignation in the voices of Doe and Cervenka as they sing of going home alone to "Watch the Sun Go Down." Zoom's ringing guitar riff and sax fills give the song's catchy melody an early '60s frat-rock sound.
More hopeful is the Byrds-like folk-rock of "I'll Stand Up for You," a duet that reaffirms the durability of two ex-lovers' friendship despite everything else. A Doe-Alvin composition, "Little Honey," which offered reconciliation as an acoustic square dance tune on the Blasters' album this year, offers the same thing as a slam-bang rocker on the X album.
If the tangle of postbreakup feelings can be expressed through both the Knitters' country music and X's punk, it can also be expressed through slick New York pop. Carly Simon's new album, "Spoiled Girl" (Epic, FE 39970), is often too slick for its own good, but at its best it works like a John Updike novel chronicling the breakdown of upper-middle-class marriages between Boston and New York.
Simon is at her Updikean best on "The Wives Are in Connecticut," which deftly captures the mutual deceptions that camouflage infidelity. Her singsong melody functions ironically like Paul Simon's recent tunes, and is neatly framed by Simon's producer, Phil Ramone. Similarly enchanting is "Interview," which she wrote with Don Was, detailing her fantasies about a cute, nervous, boyish interviewer. Was produced "Come Back Home," which maintains Simon's refined dignity even as she longs for a missing lover.
Simon is much less convincing whenever she drops that refinement and tries to either rock out (as on the self-indicting title tune) or get maudlin (as on the sappy "Tonight and Forever"). She's much better at high-style skewering. "My New Boyfriend," which is addressed as a taunt to her old boyfriend, is her sharpest put-down since her mammoth 1972 hit "You're So Vain."