It’s a weird position to be in. You have more melodic smarts than your closest competition, your lyrics are witty and smart and the majority of your songs do not center around your “love, love, love for that girl”. In other words, you’re at the top of your game, and yet something goes missing.
What’s missing from Michael Penn’s recent “Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947” is a sense of growth. Even from his late 80s debut and songs like “This And That” and “No Myth”, one could see this guy had a lot on his mind and ample ability to articulate it, but what remained is this rock-pop template, part Beatles / Byrds, part folk storyteller, and therein lies the problem. His ancestors, wordsmiths Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, turned their attention to new sounds and ways to present their knowing, sometimes snarky, tales, but unlike the tantalizing title, this recording honestly has nothing to do with the year 1947, and the pretense that couches this presumed concept recording is completely unfounded.
It is, nonetheless, Penn’s unmistakable songcraft that buoys as much as weighs down. In lesser hands, the anachronism as promised would totally kill the recording. “Walter Reed” kicks off the disc in fine form with its 60s-ish shuffle, “Mary Lynn” promises an Appalachian-styled stomp and sing-a-long and the amiable rocker “Room 712, The Apache” conceals a pointed humor that’s almost blood thirsty. Young pups who are content to while away their songs with melodramatic asides of longing, lust and loss would do well to study the man’s way with words. Apart from a couple of tracks that are little more than bizarre soundscapes, the CD is filled with merit.
But one gets the feeling Penn is holding back, like he sees the next phase looming in the distance but is hesitant to go there. As good as these tunes are, they could easily work in between anything off of “Resigned” or “MP4”. So while we wait for him to take that next step, it will be easy for fans to appreciate “Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1948”, but not as easy to reconcile a lack of forward momentum.