Cindy Lee Berryhill The Adventurist (Omnivore Recordings, 2017)
Cindy Lee Berryhill hasn’t released an album since 2008’s Beloved Stranger. Since then, her spouse, Paul Williams, founder of Crawdaddy magazine, has passed away after years of gentle decline in a nursing home, their son is in 10th grade, and handy at rebuilding computers, for one thing ... times are changing so fast – whoever thought we’d elect a reality game show host (as foresworn and pre-seen by Berryhill in 1987’s “Trump”)*, but here it is, that time. Ways have changed since then for listeners, too. We’re more likely to sample and store one song at a time on our I-pads due to catchiness than savor and fully perceive entire song cycles as bodies of work, the way it always used to be done, when Paul Williams was a teen with a typewriter fired with the impulse of intelligent writing about pop music with transcendence as its perennial subject matter.
Her brand-new release, The Adventurist, which I’ve been listening to on headphones on my walks home from work over the last few weeks, is a work of art encompassing multiple aspects of couple-hood from the perspective of the bereft but formally un-devastated. There are bits sure to get some I-pad rotation, like the opening track, American Cinematography - a powerful pop ode to love in the movies with the love mess of life to color the frictional piston that pushes it out - which moves like a car. The following track, Somebody’s Angel, has all the respectful gravity of a church service—“all my time and love couldn’t fix the damage done ... here for you forever, or long as I am able ... I pray each day he’ll bring a daddy to our son.” Contemplating the Infinite in a Kiss is a comfortable cruise through enlightenment tapestries where it’s looking “like someone lucky was finally gonna get some ... infinite freedom ... still the mind of its noisome thoughts.”
Title track The Adventurist, with adventurous, illustrative lyrics, colored by inscrutable personal reference and playfully so, how a good deal ought to go down, narrates the intrepids of an adventurous globe-trotter—perhaps ambiguously anti-heroic, like Bungalow Bill, pursued by someone known as “the protagonist”—“Out of a bar called the Seven Veils, our protagonist staggers through the market of Tangiers ... we always knew there’d be something new in the adventures of the Adventurist.” Information From Nowhere, which follows, is an instrumental passage evoking mystical cobwebs, ethereal clouds between this song and the next one, Thanks Again, which has a spoken word intro “what this crazy is coming to ... this is it, the air is rare,” perhaps a loving irony grudge against departed love Paul, who turned her on, metaphorically speaking, initiated her own life, then passed away, leaving her with the weight—“you’ve had your say/day, you got away with a grin, now it’s time to begin at the end ... I’ll take it on the kisser and on the chin.” Or maybe not. What’s it about, I don’t know, that’s a part of its greatness; it’s you in that song. Far from a factual recounting of details, considered, rather,as a cycle of songs,The Adventurist is an evocation of essence in the grand tradition, which is exactly the opposite of a diary. Some life details show their faces in this tapestry – At one point I thought I heard, “Paul, your life is just beginning, words like that in the earbuds” – but the passion is what colors it, and this belongs to all of us. As a pop stylist led by that natural mystic, art, Berryhill has an inner-soul-affinity to Brian Wilson*, the brain behind Smile and Pet Sounds and everything great and none less by the Beach Boys, a genius whose widespread veneration after decades of mistreatment came too late. Of her, none other than Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks has said, “Cindy Lee’s capacity as a lyricist is unique ... peerless ... I get the impression she knows her legacy will outlive her.”
Next up is Horsepower, which moves like a horse clopping through a town, looking around at all the houses and motorcycles and dark family secrets and greasy bankrolls hidden in drawers—“Horsepower, Horsepower, where you goin’ with that girl? You got the weight of the world blowin’ in your hair . . .” Dang. Fantastic. The unsurpassably titled Jumping to Conclusions is a false start—“One, two”—followed by I Like Cats, You Like Dogs, another readymade I-Pad or -Pod hit with its allegorical tit for tat making readymade mind candy and sugar-powered hooks. Indeed, Berryhill’s distinctive twang and knack for hooky melodics guarantees that much charm for each song—but the poppier bits are ennobled and granted depth by their placement as chapters in this libretto of death and love and pursuant transcendence—lines like “I saw a cat, as a matter of fact, buying a dog a Pepsi at a club last night” will always be cute, but perceived as hallmarks of the whole giant, become momentously so.
The Heavy talks about how one partner in a conversation or a love relationship maybe even a chess game falls into the heavier in a “good cop bad cop,” setup, always changing never changing, depending on the parties. This one’s driven by an infectious, knocking, rocking rhythm modulated by Cindy Lee’s haunting, sexy ooOOoos. When Cindy Lee Berryhill sings a song, she is utterly singing it, all the way. Deep Sea Fishing depicts learning the underwater regions of each other as lovers, “Tryna find me an answer . . . love is a dreaming, deep sea fishing . . . the shadows of our former selves, two creatures weaving together off the Continental Shelf.” Gravity Falls is another comfortable cruise through esoteric philosophy—“some make a home at the edge of the world . . . others are just passing through”—contemplating the tall silent wisdom of trees—“some are here to catch the view . . . like water falling off a mountain.”
An Affair of the Heart, the album’s final sung piece, is real things magnified, with beautiful lyrics throughout—“blossom sprang up at a footfall . . .and up above it ... you can’t fight the feeling . . . like a mountain on fire ... began with a single spark.” That’s the miracle math of loving and missing the dead: when you think X would’ve loved a thing you saw heard or read, that’s X loving it, there in your head. Total intimacy. “If we exist outside of time, I’ll meet you there.” “Deep Sea Dishing,” the album’s final track, is a gentle instrumental reconsideration of all that’s gone before it, a perfectly timed pause to consider and estimate the truly momentous nature and scope of what has passed.
Many of our favorite albums are palpably tinged by the artist’s participation in a quality love relationship. Some bands are composed of couples in love.Those albums and outfits are touched by something. Anti-folk co-founder Cindy Lee Berryhill’s latest work of art, The Adventurist, attains and breaks that tired hallmark of specialness by being a work of art colored by loving a life now dead that gave life and more love to her life, a living energy, with all that weight. With this remarkable album, Berryhill has given substance to the abstraction of how her life has been colored by love and loss and living information - “As living information, the plasmate travels up the optic nerve of a human to the pineal body” – and given that to us the hungry public as an edible shot of experience, hardly a far cry from Brian Wilson’s “Teenage Symphony to God”. Her love in all its forms is brave.
*Love and Mercy, a film on the beautiful, tragic, miraculous redemption of Brian Wilson’s life, starring Paul Dano as a youthful, bright eyed Brian, John Cusack as a wizened, pain-scarred older Brian, and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, who rescued him from the clutches of self-serving psychologist manque Eugene Landy, who successfully entrapped and controlled Brian for years before her intervention, was released in 2016. Says Berryhill, “I LOVED the film. But it’s always hard to see someone acting out the parts you read and heard so many stories about. The young Brian was absolutely uncanny and it was really something seeing the scenes with Brian and the Wrecking Crew acted out. The John Cusack part was a psychological drama and I thought he did a great job conveying that. Still it was like 2 different films. But Brian is a Gemini right? He’s two in one.”
- Zack Kopp
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