If you’re a fan of HBO’s “Girls” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” you might have noticed the unusually tasteful, elegant music that accompanies those shows, among the most interesting compositions to grace contemporary television. What you might not know is who actually composes that music—none other than singer-songwriter and producer Michael Penn.
Debuting in 1989 on RCA with March, Penn released three more albums, enduring various bouts of label trouble, before going independent. In 2005, he self-released Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, on his own label—to date, it is his last solo album.
Reviews of the work at the time of its release referred to it as a “concept album,” which is partly true. In interviews, Penn has spoken of his fascination with the postwar period and the notion that this year, 1947, marks the birth of America as we know it. This was year of the National Security Act, which created the CIA, the NSC, and much else. It also saw the start of the Cold War, the creation of the transistor radio, the Black Dahlia murder, Al Capone’s death, Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose, and the production of the AK-47. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier; Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. 1947 was also the year of the Hollywood blacklist, which affected actor/director Leo Penn, Michael’s father, who passed in 1998.
It would have been easy for a master popsmith like Penn to merely write a series of vignettes that illustrated each of these events clearly, vividly. Perhaps that would have made for a great album, too. But he is a subtle enough thinker and musician to take a different approach, which is what makes this work such a special album, deserving of far greater attention than it has received.
Though some of the songs have thematic ties with the conceptual basis for the album, especially the instrumentals—“The Transistor,” “18 September,” and “The Television Set Waltz,” a jaunty number led by piano and clarinet—for the most part the songs seem to be about the subtle ways history can impress itself on even the most private dimensions of our lives. Without having to make the songs explicitly about things happening in 1947, Penn transports us to that age by imagining the dominant emotions of the period, especially darker ones like insecurity, paranoia, hesitation, longing, desire and disappointment.
The opener, “Walter Reed,” is a portrait of the weariness and disillusionment felt by a soldier who returns home to find the world has no use for him anymore—“(I’m the walking wounded/ And I’d say it to your face/ But I can’t find my place.” The second track, the stunning “Denton Road,” finds Penn inhabiting the character of someone who seems to be attending their own funeral, a tune that couples wit and woe in lines like “Someone made a joke about the Lord/ And somehow it relates/ To a dash between the dates.”
Elsewhere, the rockier “Room 712, The Apache” seems to conjure the invention of the plastic heart valve, which Charles Hufnagel began working on in 1947. The waltz-y “You Know How” finds the song’s speaker addressing a debutante-like figure—“You had a ball at Edendale”—and namechecking a “new particle”—presumably pion, whose charged iteration was uncovered in, you guessed it, 1947. The haunting closer, “P.S. Millionaire,” features Penn inhabiting the shoes of some kind of huckster, seemingly selling promises he knows to be empty.
The acoustic ballad “Pretending” is, on the surface, about relationships, but its lyrics could just as well describe not a romantic couple but a government and the people it pretends to serve. Likewise with the false optimism and self-doubt of “A Bad Sign.” Penn has a short story writer’s gift for expressing big ideas within the confines of a pop song, allowing his lyrics to take on both “global” themes while sacrificing none of their intimacy. These songs could be about politics as easily as they could be about romance—the political reaches all the way into the personal, in Penn’s imagined recounting of what it must have been like to inhabit those years.
Throughout the album, his gifts as a musician and arranger are evident, too. Standard pop-rock instrumentation is amplified by Chamberlin, Mellotron, dulcimer, organ, and more, with Penn playing most of the instruments that aren’t drums. His allegiances are with melody, but he is not above a guitar snarl or two. And though the wit of Penn’s lyrics sometimes reminds one of a writer like Elvis Costello, he has much more restraint than the British songwriter—again, one wonders whether Penn’s writing influences aren’t literary above all, since he has a fiction writer’s gift for precision, knowing how to say as much as possible while saying as little as possible, conjuring worlds through half-glimpsed images.
This is perhaps truest of all when it comes to the most deceptively simple song, “Mary Lynn,” featuring dulcimer, stomps and claps, drum loops and infectious bass. Somehow the song ends up having a kind of psychedelic feel, yet the lyrics seem like the thoughts running through the mind of an innocent young man in the ‘50s—“And if you’d only stay the night/ You’d see it’s not so black and white/ And on a hard day/ Put your cares away and pray.”
It’s easy to get frustrated that, in the age of a music industry that rewards the most withering of mediocrities, someone like Michael Penn isn’t better known. Perhaps it is just as well; one can only hope he knows that, for some of his listeners, albums like Mr. Hollywood Jr. are, in their own way, classics, eager and ready for rediscovery for those who care to find out. A lot of the emotions Penn sets in 1947 are more relevant than ever today, except now it’s not so much the beginning of an era as much as (possibly) the end of one. Then again, as Penn sang in another song, “it’s a long way down.” At least we’ll have his music for the ride.