What's modern about The Modern Lovers? The question is dumb, but so is the album. So is the building I write this in—it's condemned, full of asbestos, you can't drink from the water fountains, and there's a dead cockroach in the men's room on the second floor. Eventually the building is supposed to get torn down, but for now my office is in it, I hold my office hours in it and I apologize to every student who wonders why the lights are so dim or the stairways so full of mostly dead insects in it. I am pretty sure this building is killing us—me, my students, and now even you, the reader, who has to think about this building and probably knows at least one building like it, or even works in one.
But we were talking about modernism—I mean The Modern Lovers, which amounts to the same thing. Modernism is everywhere on this album, which is one way to answer my opening question. The Modern Lovers is modern because Jonathan Richman's tastes are modern. But that only explains one thing, the tenderness for a womanizing Picasso, the beeline our hero makes for the Cezanne room in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It explains what Richman thinks about a certain way of seeing from the past, a way of seeing that looked at the arrival of a dizzying array of transformations and in a complicated way tried to deal with those changes. Picasso didn't say YES or NO or even MAYBE exclusively, he had a lot to say and in a lot of different ways. At the end of the day he was a painter. Jonathan Richman is a songwriter.
The big difference between Richman and Picasso isn't really their medium of choice, though. It's that "Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, not like you." When Richman sings this, it's not clear who the "you" is—is it me? is it some unknown fictional character based on a real person that the song rages against? is it Richman himself? does it matter? No, it doesn't matter, at least not as much as the way this line registers the limits of Richman's enthusiasm. You can love the modern all you want, but it means loving a lot of people who were assholes (even if they weren't called assholes) and loving a lot of stuff that's just not possible to take up, to do again without some kind of modification. Hence in "Old World," Richman says that the old world "may be dead." He still loves it, but it isn't the same world as the one in which he tells someone, ludicrously, that he will be with her "on the astral plane" if he can't sleep with her in real life.
The sentiment is gross; the expression of it totally inane. And yet it is also quintessentially modern, insofar as it attempts to solve a worldly problem by negating the world completely through art. But rock songs don't quite have the same verve as Cezanne's paintings, and Richman seems aware of this as he repeatedly displaces the great spatial and temporal themes of modernity—the railroad! the city! the large-scale industrial development!—with interpersonal dynamics and songs about romantic relationships. The result is more than a little silly, perhaps even embarrassing, but it's also seriously funny. And this is what I mean when I call The Modern Lovers a dumb album: it's a sentimental album, an album that deals with complex feelings that would cease to be complex—or interesting—if they congealed into a recognizable or fixed representation. That's why there has to be a song called "Modern World" in addition to one called "Old World." That's why Richman needs a girlfriend—or GIRLFREN as the song's chorus spells it—to go with him to the museum, but he and the Modern Lovers have to “make the secretaries feel better" by playing a show at the Government Center. There is no way conceivably to represent what's modern.
So "dumbness" names the tone of the album, not its ineptitude or puerility. Indeed, the only puerile thing would be to ask for a recognizable and complete image of the modern, an enumeration of characteristics that contented itself with closure and completion. The Modern Lovers refuse to try to do this, offering up instead an album about living in the ruins of modernity. They are at all points surrounded by the failures of a century that promised to turn the present into the future with its dizzying rate of development, and they feel strange about it, and they want to say so, but they have only the language of those modernists who responded to this situation half a century before them as an example of how to proceed. The older language is silly, dramatic, and, yes, dumb, but Richman and his band have taken it up nonetheless. They have made it into a series of rock songs, with chugging guitars and siren-like organs, with misspelled words and parodies of the Velvet Underground's drug-addled self-glorifications. They race faster miles an hour on highways that modernity made possible, in an attempt to get away from the consequences of that same modernity. They are alienated, and not just in the colloquial sense of kinda-feeling-strange (although there's that too): seriously separated, and they don't know what to do about it except sing a song that sounds silly because it wants on its own to change the entire world, and it knows it can't but here it is expressing the desire anyway. The Modern Lovers say, to the listener who is willing to hear them, they say, listen, Pablo Picasso was an asshole, but he never got called an asshole, not like you, by which we mean us, but also you, and anyway Picasso is dead, long live Picasso, we are Picasso. To be Picasso, not to be like him: this is the gambit of The Modern Lovers.
—David W. Pritchard