Here are four of the finest narrators who still use song as a medium—raconteurs capturing distinctly modern stories.
Musicians were the original storytellers—the traveling minstrel, the cultural historian, the first curators of myth and general wisdom before the pen, library science and that whole computer thing did our archival heavy lifting for us. Today, we keep our songs and stories separate, except maybe within the rap community, where a fair number of storytellers keep the art alive (see The Coup, Nas and Kendrick Lamar for recent examples).
But for the bulk of popular music, no artist, apparently, is interested in tale-telling. It’s part of the reason music critics work themselves into a tizzy each year when they find someone to crown the “New Dylan”—Conor Oberst and Ryan Adams were among the more worthy and recent of those inductees. But even that fleeting distinction doesn’t guarantee actual plot or pathos and the press seems to highlight the same people each year. Musicians as modern storytellers—now that’s a dying breed.
Or is it? Collected below are a few of the finest narrators who still use song as a medium—raconteurs capturing distinctly modern stories. All of them got their start after 1990, and most aren’t commonly pegged as the great documentarians they truly are. In an digital age where actual human engagement is rare and fleeting, these four storytellers will curl up and stay. Intimate and jarring, they find the sacred in the mundane, and make an ancient tradition come alive in modern times.
John Vanderslice– John Vanderslice has done his fair share of self-reflection. On his 2005 album “The Pixel Revolt” he traces his own depressive episodes and suicidal fantasies, in suprisingly dirge-less pop journal entries. He’s also an incredibly literary songwriter—his next album “Emerald City” could be a short story collection, with fully realized characters navigating settings as wide ranging as the Oregon Trail and World War II, lyrics spiraling out over feedback and analog experimentation. It’s surprisingly relatable. A standout track is “White Dove” a framed story of a mourning mother whose child was abducted and killed. The ghost of the murdered daughter is symbolized by the eponymous bird, casting down consolations from beyond. It cuts deep.
Frida Hyvonen– A singer-songwriter who takes the weird, crunchy connotations out of that title, Frida Hyvonen is a woefully-underrated wonder. With a voice somehow both buoyant and forlorn, the Swede’s songs remind the listener of Tobias Wolff’s prose: idealistic young things get old without realizing it, fight against their small town realities, and are sad but not shattered when they’re still stuck there. One line in 2008’s “Dirty Dancing” perfectly recalls the upheaval of first rejection: “He told me no/And how my young heart broke/And how a cold new world unraveled.” In 2005, the choreographer Dorte Olsen asked Hyvonen to compose the score for PUDEL, a Swedish dance performance. Playing the songs onstage, Hyvonen’s expressive lyrics found their bodies. Her tales of quiet rebellion and new resolve will make a home in you as well.
Perfume Genius- A great storyteller is one who gives voice to tales not often told. For Mike Hadreas, that means recounting, with aching aplomb, a legacy of self-doubt, drug addiction, sexual identity crises and abuse. Hadreas is the lone member of indie-pop act Perfume Genius, a project he began in his mother’s Washington basement after drying out for good. In Hadreas’ hands, topics that could easily linger in self-pity or rote emollience turn more complex, into dynamic and incredibly intimate meditations on love’s many faces, guilt, and learning to carry the past without letting it bury you. His stories cast a surreal mood entirely their own—incredibly dark subject matter is buoyed by Hadreas’ hopeful, almost childlike lilt, a voice that always sounds like its just finished crying, but is better for the weeping done. A standout track from his 2008 debut, “Mr. Peterson,” finds Hadreas shying away from the easy characterization of a high school teacher with whom he had one of his first sexual experiences. In Hadreas’ hands, he’s both an abuser and a torn instructor, the first tangible example of a gay man in his life, a man who eventually threw himself off a building. The last line, a gut punch, offers no easy answers: “I hope there’s room for you up above/ or down below.”
John Darnielle– If I ever was going to nominate someone the modern Dylan, an absurd task in itself, John Darnielle would be damn hard to beat. The Mountain Goats frontman has spun tales like no one I’ve seen since—well, you know. But it’s the simple triumphs, the mundane heartbreaks that intrigue him as much as the mythic and the biblical—though he’s done that too (“Grendel’s Mother,” “Love, Love, Love” etc.). The Mountain Goats’ LP “All Hail West Texas” plays like a 90’s “Winesburg, Ohio”; a series of short brutal vignettes on small town life resurrected on the lo-fi track with nothing but a buzzing acoustic and his triumphant wine. “This Year” arguably their most popular song, is one of Darnielle’s most autobiographical, following an angst-ridden teenager as he careens from arcade brawl to girl’s kiss to vicious showdown with his abusive stepfather in the garage. The line about Kathy, his first love, kills me every time: “Locking eyes/Holding hands/Twin high-maintenance machines.” At his best, Darnielle is more than man; he’s a goddamn prophet.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Selena Smith