By Ben Neal:
RATING: 4.5 / 5 stars
The first album I ever fell in love with was BNL’s Maroon, which was the band’s last real presence on the consciousness of the mainstream public (in America, at least). Maroon starts out light and entertaining enough with the first five songs, but the back half of the album was where the beauty was to be found. Each track became progressively darker and dealt with issues varying from adultery to a cynical view of idealism to celebrity and political satire with a great level of success. I still listen to it as much as I did that Fall of 2001, and like a great novel or a great film it still packs the same punch, even though the songs mean something different for me than they did back then. From that point on, I was hooked on BNL and in particular, the songs sung by Steven Page. Page’s songs always had a certain quintessential quality: contrasting bright sounds with dark lyrics that always had a bit of irony and double meaning, and he was never afraid to look back and be referential towards his influences, be they musical or literary.
Why am I writing about a decade-old album when reviewing Steven Page’s latest album Page One? In some ways, Page One represents the full evolution of an artist and capitalizes on the potential of Maroon, both musically and thematically. Where Maroon was ultimately about taking (or at least, trying or wanting to) charge and control of one’s life, Page One is about finally doing just that.
Page One kicks off with “A New Shore”, a metaphorical journey about beginning anew and being hopeful, and frankly I can think of no better way for Page to start this album. It’s a song you did not expect, from the horn-heavy composition to the hopeful nature of the song; whereas many fans expected this is to be a more morbid record, this is a signal we are in for a more optimistic and bright album that anyone could have expected. While the story of the song is told via nautical references, the subtext is pretty clear and addresses his departure from his role as a “black mark” in a cheerful band by saying “I forget whether I was pushed or jumped aboard and after all of this time what is the difference?” “A New Shore”’s use of metaphor is a reminder that some of the best BNL songs were always told by allegory (a la “Bank Job” or “When I Fall”).
Indecision is a rather odd choice to follow-up A New Shore, since it seems to be a polar opposite to the latter’s emphasis on making a change and being happy with it. “Indecision” actually dates back a few years and was never included on BNL albums due to their shift away from songs co-written by anyone outside of the band, and is reminiscent of songs like “Upside Down” or “Bull in a China Shop.” That being said, it is a very strong song that represents some of the best sounds you will hear on most contemporary albums, even if it feels slightly out of place on this album. Ironically, it makes a good retro-response to “I Have Learned”’s, where Ed Robertson sings “You’re not comfortable until you’re not/when things get wonderful, you get hot.”
Next up is the folksy, but extremely powerful “Clifton Springs,” which Page has described as one of the most personal songs on the album. It follows a pretty straightforward personal narrative that, ironically, tells the story of the pratfalls of not trusting yourself and of being held hostage by “indecision.”
Up next is what some would call an anti-matrimonial trilogy of “Entourage,” “Marry Me,” and “All the Young Monogamists.” However, I don’t see these songs as an attack on marriage or monogamy at all. “Entourage” in the tradition of “Sell Sell Sell” and “Celebrity” represents a biting satire on the state of big time celebrity, whereas “Marry Me” and “Monogamists” examine marriage and serious relationships from a jaded perspective to be sure (this is Steven Page, after all), but they both ultimately embrace the relationships. “Monogamists” also has been self-described by Page as his first true love song, albeit one with jaded protagonists and features some beautiful strings and is one of the album’s highlights.
“She’s Trying to Save Me” and “Over Joy” represent a change both musically and thematically from the earlier songs in the album and sound like reminiscent fresh pop music from the 60s and 70s, yet deal with the destructive effects that depression can have on relationships. Page has always soared highest in my mind when singing about these issues (“This is Where It Ends,” “War on Drugs,” etc.) and does not disappoint here. In particular, “Over Joy” is an amazingly beautiful song that is perfectly produced and Page’s voice is wonderful here with every inflection expertly enacted. “Over Joy” also does what Page does best: contrast dark lyrics with a sunny composition (see “So.Cal” from The Vanity Project as another example). Personally, I find it to be my favorite track on this excellent album.
The next three tracks could not be more divergent. “If You Love Me” is a brazen and bold track that borders on camp, but ultimately works more than I could have ever imagined and serves as a reminder of Page’s origins as a Duran Duran (the original lead singer of Duran Duran, Stephen Duffy co-wrote much of the album with Page) devotee. “Leave Her Alone” is as Chris Moore noted in his review, a quite dynamic track and one that harkens back to the “big band” era of yesteryear. Like “When You Dream” from Stunt, it speaks to parenthood, but from a very different perspective. “Queen of America,” on the other hand is unlike anything I’ve heard from the BNL/Page canon before. It tells the story of a drag queen and explores how gay culture is often co-opted by mainstream society, and the indulgent overproduction of this track makes its sound and theme quite ironic. One of the most interesting elements of these songs is how they illustrate how various songs on this album fit in nicely with the music of probably six decades and none of the tracks are predictable.
This finally brings me to “The Chorus, Girl.” I include the comma because, in classic Page fashion, the title has a double meaning: the song is about the Chorus, girl and not a girl in a chorus line. This is an amazing and transcendent song with an almost epic and universal appeal, and is about the difficulty in creating art and the danger in trying to be Everything to Everyone whether in art or in life. In some ways, it serves a nice bookend to “Running Out of Ink” as its essentially about having trouble with the creative process, but this song works on a macro-level where “Ink” addressed these issues on a more micro level. It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful song and stands out as probably the best of the album and one of the best of his career. From the first few chords to the “la la la”s at the end, it is a song to behold and treasure.
While it has flaws (namely a couple instances of overproduction and due to being written over a number of years, lacking cohesion), Page One represents some of Page’s best work to date and is an album to behold, treasure, and undoubtedly listen to, over and over and over for years to come. It represents the full evolution of a great artist and packs an emotional punch without feeling too weighty. It also, thankfully, brings us the return of Page’s songwriting partnership with Stephen Duffy. In the early BNL era he co-wrote songs such as “Jane,” “Call and Answer,” and the powerful, but never recorded “Powder Blue”; but in an effort to make the band more member-centric, a decision was made to only record songs from within the band so his songs did not make the cut for the last several BNL albums. While it’s sad to see the Page/Robertson songwriting duo come to an end, it’s refreshing to see the return of the Duffy partnership.
As I close, I was struck by the similarities (despite being very different artists) of two of the favorites of the Laptop Sessions (and me personally): Steven Page and Jakob Dylan. Both were quasi-one hit wonders from the 1990s remembered for a super-hit song. Ironically, both their best works came in the years immediately after their peak of popularity (Maroon for Page and Breach and Red Letter Days for Dylan). Both always fought various preconceptions of being silly or being known for/compared to who their father was; both are not afraid to be self-referential/depreciating in their music (“Hand Me Down” or “Box Set”), both vary through musical genres with ease and unpredictability, and both are two of the finest and fearless artists of their generation.