Who Are Some of the Most Important Singer-Songwriters Working Today?
I am a critic, and although I hate the tendency on every website imaginable to devolve into superficial rankings with little-bitty paragraphs offering a snarky or sentimental or nostalgic bullet-point reasoning reason for why so-and-so is the best 976th artist of the 1976 World Trade Center jamboree, I do think it is important sometimes to pause and consider where one is at in one's cultural moment, and take stock of things. A lot of things are happening our cultural world that are of note, but no one seems to be writing about the meaning or importance of these things at a deeper level - things like the Dylan museum opening up in Tulsa, or Dylan selling his catalog of music, or even, weirdly enough, the very tendency in our culture towards the hybrid, and what this might mean for where we might be headed culturally, what this says about the internet, and how we might even begin to praise whom we think deserves the praise for carrying various torches forward in the fight for survival via art.
For my money, Bob Dylan has to be the starting point for thinking about singer-songwriters in the 21st century, just as Picasso has to be the starting point for thinking about visual artists in the 21st century and, although there are not hard and fast rules to these things, it seems useful in some sense to consider artists in various art forms in relationship to these masters, because of the wildness and wideness and depth of their achievements, their inescapability, and their ability to hold such a multitudinousness in their work as to court the most idiosyncratic universality imaginable. That said, proceeding from Dylan, I personally think Fiona Apple, Sufjan Stevens, and Stephin Merritt are doing some of the most interesting work through songwriting, and that they do not get the credit they deserve for the proteanness, the hybridity, the combining of marvelously divergent qualities, like the carnivalesque, the revivalist, the dark and funny, the genius for arrangement and the mood accompanying these arrangements, the lyrics that approximate forms of literature like poetry, the intelligence sans any pretension whatsoever (and therefore a fight against pretension of any kind whatsoever, "Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower," etc.), the refusal to sit still in any category of genre, and therefore we do not have an adequate appreciation of their work, and we do not have an adequate appreciation of our culture either, because of this general obliviousness about what is happening in terms of hybridity and other things of that nature.
If you listen to Fiona Apple on "Tidal," the first thing you might notice is that when she sings "the child is gone," this is an authentic statement referring both to trauma and a frightening artistic maturity, even a prodigyness. And I mean this not just in terms of her voice, which flows like honey, as she sings it and describes it in one section of one of the song - "slow like honey, heavy with mood" - but in her lyrics, which have the robustness and the flavor of actual poetry while moving in and out of the arrangements in a way that I don't find many equals to when trying to find analogies. Nina Simone could be one - they both court a kind of ravishing witchiness, a shamanic quality, and they both seem to be interested in a kind of ecstasy that is neither hysteria nor frenzy but both deliberate and fearless, a form of both abandon and discipline - and both seem to be interested primarily in freedom through music, whether that be in songs like "Feeling Good," or "Sinnerman," "Criminal" or "Extraordinary Machine," though the means by which this freedom is achieved in the song is so marvelously subtle and complex that we are constantly missing the mark when we even begin to describe what Apple is doing. Her voice can catapult into the giddy, the silly; it can descend into a moodiness that teeters into the bitter without ever giving into it; it can open up and out into the most satisfying forms of rage imaginable, and it can be a kind of tonic, or balm, something sweet, something beautiful, something healing, something almost frighteningly lovely and unafraid. Her range therefore, in her voice, is not only astonishing, but it is also very idiosyncratic, meaning she introduces new registers, new moods, into the American songbook, from something circus-like, that perhaps hearkens back to the kinds of vaudevillian acts that would open at the places in New York where Bob Dylan started playing, a kind of lovable oddball quality meshed within something very deep and plangent. We often find new registers in our sense of humor as a culture as we grow in different directions, not teleologically but diversifically, and even Apple's humor seems very new, a kind of rage mixed with an enjoyable sense of the absurd and preposterous that we can find on "Extraordinary Machine," the song and the album as well. She is never fey, and she is never twee, but she is strong and enjoys being strong, and perhaps this is why her music is so satisfying and also sometimes prone to a kind of angry giggliness.
Sufjan Stevens is also impossible to categorize or pin down, as the best artists always are. On albums like "Chicago" and "Carrie and Lowell," we are given another sense of a different kind of range, of equal ability to astound and move, of equal poignance and astonishment and wonder, but through different registers, different tones, different rooms or ambiances or passages one travels through via the imagination and catharsis that comes about through songs via lyrics and melody and arrangements and voice. "Chicago" does not have any precedent, to my mind, anywhere really. It is profoundly religious without striking even the slightest tone of falsity, sentimentality, derivativeness, or banality - his album of Christian music is also very beautiful and moving - and it is the kind of album that one listens to and feels as if one is listening to the moment at which one listens to it, which is how the poet, novelist, essayist, and critic Ben Lerner once described John Ashbery's poetry. Stevens will sing something seeing, or "I made a lot of mistakes," "I was in love with a place in my mind, in my mind," and there is a wrenchingness to these words, combined with the most bewildering heart-tugging pathos. It is like an emptiness that suggests both devastation and awe, and yet there is nothing grand-suggesting about it, nothing of the Manny Farberian "monumental" (a term Farber critiqued), but rather a deep sensitivity along with a preternatural ear for orchestration and arrangement and composition. There is something about the music on "Chicago" that reminds me of some forms of minimal music - it has a pulsing quality, like something by Elliot Carter that repeats and yet observes a kind of swirling, twirling, moving harmonious cacophony, with Stevens voice moving in and out of the composition, and all these different instruments playing their part in a unified whole that is divergent and coherent at once. This bewildering achievement that somehow works, that seems like something we listen to without thinking about what it actually achieves, is also completely different from the similar degree of achievement on "Carrie and Lowell," which is a much darker album, and which moves us in a totally different way. There, songs like "The Only Thing," or "Eugene," or "John My Beloved" are like forms of alternative folk that prod that darkest alleys of the soul, getting at something almost beyond mourning through mourning, like elegy transubstantiated into the transcendent through death - the death of one's mother, but also the death of a self through trauma, or absence, or neglect, or the vanity of the world, or love. When he sings "so can we contend sweetly before the mystery ends / I love you more than the world can contain in its lonely and ramshackle head," there is something in the performance of these lyrics via the melody and arrangement and Stevens voice that is like a haunting before time began, and a sadness with such richness in its weather-system that we eagerly step into its rain and experience our own mourning in as safe and stark and challenging and moving way as possible.
Stephin Merritt is someone who mourns in a different way, and although Apple and Stevens do not have precedents, Merritt seems perhaps the most original, even though all three are enormously experimental, because of his interest in the concept album and its yoking together with the least conceptual art form imaginable, the catchy song. Merritt's songs are the strangest beasts because they combine the darkest and funniest qualities with songs with melodies that one does not want to ever forget, and it is this very marvelous yoking together of the memorable with the strange, the utterly "highbrow" with the pure satisfaction of any radio song we loved ad a kid, that makes Merritt's songs unforgettable and the sorts of things, like Dylan songs, that create "spots of time," meaning when one listens to "Epitaph for My Heart," or "Grand Canyon," it is like stepping into a zone, like a Dylan song, that makes wherever one is more meaningful, even if the song is "Meaningless." When one listens to Apple, one feels empowered and seen; when one listens to Stevens, one feels imbued with a kind of natural spirit of mourning or aliveness; when one listens to Merritt, one laughs and cries at once out of the most wonderful combination of joy and sorrow that is hard to describe, like the greatest teenager of all time writing the greatest songs of all time while mumbling something grumpy about the neighbors next door not liking it (see "'85 Why I Am Not a Teenager"). And his consistency, the lack of unevenness in his work - I have never hard a song of Merritt's that I didn't like, weirdly enough - is something that to my mind approaches Dylan's genius for making the greatest works of art in music in a way that makes people (though Merritt would probably hate this formulation) fall in love.