Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales, Room 29
March 28, 2017
It’s been a little over a week since Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales released Room 29, a song cycle of tales from the Chateau Marmont, and I’m still searching for a
review that deals with something other than Jarvis’s lyrics, or that reduces the piano’s sound to “tinkling.”1
I hate to be one of those (former) musicologists who bemoans the lack of music education among pop music reviewers. That old, stale argument is the masculine posturing
of a mindset that says, yes, the only real way to discuss music’s merit requires formal analysis of harmony, with maybe a nod to “surface” details like melody and timbre. I hate that attitude, and not because I’m not into harmonic analysis.2 Instead, I hate it because it reduces music to “the notes,” when it’s about so much more: expression, merging of sound and lyrics, timbre, production values, etc.
But while I do think reviewers can and should apply different values to different projects, it’s a GIANT FUCKING PROBLEM that reviewers have paid so little attention to the music of Room 29, and the song cycle form it takes. These two aspects provide keys to understanding how Room 29 works, and whether, for that matter, it succeeds. But it’s also troublesome that reviewers have slighted Chilly Gonzales, whose music creates the mood for Room 29, in favor of measuring the project on whether Jarvis’s lyrics about the sad, dead residents of the Chateau Marmont stand up to his keen observations of British life.
So, here I am, being a cranky musicologist, but endeavoring not to be one of the masculine smackdown versions, and insisting that this is a song cycle, and you have to consider the music, people. This does not mean using complicated jargon, or analysis that only music theorists understand. Instead, it means having a fundamental grasp of what this thing (that is, a song cycle) is and how to evaluate it, and, yes, paying attention to sound.
By calling Room 29 a song cycle, Gonzales and Cocker are placing their music a tradition that flourished in 19th-century Romanticism and emerged from its values. When constructing a song cycle, composers such as Franz Schubert or Robert Schumann focused on the work of one poet; each Lied (or song, if you prefer) would take its form from a preexisting poem; and the whole cycle would be arranged in such a way as to construct a large, emotional arc on a central theme.3
In a recent interview, Gonzales called Room 29 a “reverse song cycle,” meaning that the music came before the lyrics. He would send Jarvis the piano parts, and then Jarvis would compose the melodies and lyrics over them.4 Although composed after the music, the lyrics tell an overarching story and give form to Room 29, just as they would in a traditional song cycle. The title track, which sets up the themes of the album, sets up the ironic distance within this “comfortable venue for a nervous breakdown.” Jarvis observes, “A lifetime of spectating leaves you impotent, unable to join in without a frame of reference, watching the playback after the event.” The songs that follow are “playbacks after the event,” unflinching but also sympathetic portraits of the room’s former inhabitants: “Clara,” the depressing story of Mark Twain’s last surviving child; “Bombshell,” which reflects on the honeymoon of Jean Harlow and her second husband, Paul Bern (who supposedly killed himself due to impotence, but who may have been murdered by a former lover); Howard Hughes, whose life story forms not a song by Jarvis but a narration by historian David Thomson. Other, anonymous characters flit in and out as emblems of (old) Hollywood in “Tearjerker,” “Salome,” and “Ice Cream as Main Course.”
And that’s where most reviewers stop. BUT here’s what I love about this project, and what I think is so smart about it after repeated listens: Gonzales’s music—mostly piano, but also with some additional strings provided by the Kaiser Quartett—draws on the sonic traditions of the 19th century, as well as the classic Hollywood film soundtracks of the earlier 20th century. The songs deliberately evoke a past through the sounds that might be associated with those times: occasional flashes of ragtime through a syncopated rhythm, or fragments that recall something from Great American Songbook, or strings that murmur or swell like something from a 1930s soundtrack to a melodrama.
Room 29 isn’t necessarily inventive in terms of new-classical/pop song cycles (I would listen to Corey Dargel for that), but it is a beautiful illustration of how pop music can use piano and orchestral instruments in an emotional and affecting way. (Note: I am also a huge fan of old Hollywood, so this project automatically appeals to me.) The instrumental “Marmont Overture,” for example, uses rubato, a wandering melody, and lots of harmonic color to set a wistful stage for the sound effects of the Chateau Marmont. Each of these musical aspects alone can evoke uncertainty; put together, it musically predetermines themes to come.
“Bombshell” and “Belle Boy” use rhythm to great effect. “Bombshell” pulses in the treble register of the piano, a right-hand melody that follows Jarvis’s lyrics, but inevitably returns to a ticking time-bomb echoed in the strings. We expect ominous pulsing in the left hand of the piano, and locating it in the right upends expectations in a way that somehow makes the song more unsettling. When the song departs from this texture, through interjections from the strings, it only heightens the feeling the something ominous will happen. The lyrics—about Jean Harlow and Paul Bern—imply the missed opportunities in their relationships, but, like all good Jarvis lyrics, could be extrapolated out. But with the specificities and the knowledge of Bern’s death two months later, the ominous piano setting becomes a prelude to tragedy.
“Belle Boy” pairs with “Bombshell” in its use of a pedal-point in the piano’s bass note and in the strings. Here, the music gives the sense of the bell boy rushing through his duties, having to deal with all kinds of depraved jerks in the process. (It’s a little over-the-top, though, when an actual bell chimes. Who does Chilly Gonzales think he is, Hector Berlioz?)
While other songs in the cycle mix 20th-century styles, “Howard Hughes Under the Microscope” draws on Debussy. The impressionistic harmonic palette (some parallel chords here and there, harmonies that feel more about color than direction, etc.) allows David Thomson’s narration to achieve focus and adds a mood of wistfulness to Thomson’s description of Hughes, both as the Hollywood rich kid and the later, urine-sipping version.
With sweeping strings, “A Trick of the Light” brilliantly summarizes Hollywood glitz in general, and golden-age Hollywood. This song best illustrates how Jarvis and Chilly Gonzales weave the themes of the album into sophisticated and emotionally resonant music. Arpeggiated chords lead to deliberate rests, giving a feeling of uncertainty, as its musical direction swells and ebbs. The lyrics are about Hollywood, of course, but become so much more through Jarvis’s performance within the song, which builds to desperation. The lyrics could easily become melodrama, and so could the music (it ends with a sweeping orchestral section that would not feel out of place in an early talkie Oscar-bait film), but Jarvis and Gonzales manage to escape that fate (or maybe just do melodrama so well that I’m willing to forgive them for it).
“A Trick of the Light” also illustrates a final point about Room 29 as a song cycle. It comes late in the album’s order, after so many of the other songs have already illustrated the parts of the whole. It works as a grand summation and an expansion at the same time, just like a song late in a song cycle could.
- FFS, people, that’s just lazy.
- I’m a flutist and bassist who thinks of the world in single-line melodies as they intersect, not as simultaneous chordal things. I’m great with polyphony, y’all!
- For example, one of the quintessential song cycles of the 19th century, Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, creates an overarching narrative from a series of Heinrich Heine’s poems: the poet finds love, then loses it. This arc illustrates the Romantic mindset, in which pure happiness could not be understood without the deepest sorrow to frame it; sweet needs bitter to make sure it keeps from cloying; and true beauty cannot exist without the ugly (or even monstrous). Also, Heine haaaated being called a Romantic, and yet he’s recognized as one of ‘em, thus proving that the Romantics were the first hipsters. (Sorry.)
- I wish the interviewer had delved deeper into this. Chilly Gonzales implies it wasn’t really too back-and-forth (at least not at first), but that seems extra weird to me as a person who’s been in bands.