Elizabeth Short, nicknamed “The Black Dahlia,” was found murdered. Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Bugsy Siegel was found shot. Eyewitnesses claimed to see UFOs both over Puget Sound’s Maury Island and in the small town of Roswell, New Mexico. President Truman signed both the Presidential Succession Act (which infamously put Gerald Ford into the White House) and the National Security Act which created the CIA, the NSC, the Department of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The speed of sound was shattered by Chuck Yeager, the Spruce Goose took flight, and the House Un-American Activities Commission blackballed the Hollywood 10, a group of writers thought to be Communist sympathizers. You can see why Michael Penn is fascinated with the year 1947. It is a year rich with history, myth and change.
Michael Penn started out pursuing music while his two brothers pursued acting (Sean and Chris, for those in caves). His debut album, the singer / songwriter pop gem March, hit big with singles like “No Myth.” No other album of Penn’s ever became as popular, and eventually he turned his attention to scoring film, creating lasting relationships with Paul Thomas Anderson, Jon Brion, and his wife Aimee Mann. Both he and Mann have now left both small and major labels behind in favor of their own imprints and the creation of United Musicians. Earlier this year, Mann released a theme album revolving around the story of a young couple, a drug-addicted boxer and his wife. Now, other half Penn is releasing his own theme album, revolving around specific events in the year 1947. Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 is a stunning achievement, possibly due to receive more adulation than his normally more popular wife, and will go down as not only one of the best theme albums recorded, but also one of the best singer / songwriter albums, marking Penn’s best work since his debut in 1989.
Although Michael Penn was born in New York, he has spent most of his life as a resident of Los Angeles, and as such has become fascinated with the early days of the sprawling desert city, the L.A. that’s found in Chinatown or Raymond Chandler novels. Jazz clubs, hopheads and soldiers returning from the war abound in this version of L.A., and we are treated to Polaroids of a time in the city’s fascinating past. (By the way, the Polaroid was invented in 1947.) Penn includes references to the Walter Reed Army Hospital, the first artificial heart transplant, and other various dropped links to the year in question. There are a few short interludes, much like in Sufjan Steven’s album Illinois. Two in particular, “September 18th” (the day that the aforementioned National Security Act was signed), and then “The Television Set Waltz” are nice intermissions for the album. The latter sounds like Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream.” The two could make a nice juxtaposition on a mix CD.
Penn also continues his excellent wordplay not often found in songwriters not named Costello. For instance in “You Know How,” Penn sings:
And when you think he likes you
Then you like the way he thinks.
He also picks up some of the off-meter rhyme schemes from his partner as opener “Walter Reed” sounds similar to one of her compositions:
Tell me now what more do you need?
Take me to Walter Reed tonight,
Baby I lost the will for fighting
There’s a few things I’ve gotta say
Make no mistake I’m mad
`Cause every good thing I had
Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 may not be as directly related to its theme than Sufjan Stevens’ state albums to theirs, but it is not originally meant to be. Penn himself says that it isn’t about 1947, but that year is “the sepia it occupies.” Regardless of the intent, the album is easily one of the most enjoyable compositions I’ve heard all year, and the `return’ I’ve been waiting for from Michael Penn. While it may not launch him into the same cult status of his wife, it should at least get him on the same playing field. One of my favorite stories from that year involves Jackie Robinson taking his position at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn amidst volleys of boos until shortstop Pee Wee Reese walked up to Robinson, put his arm around the shoulders of the `rookie’ first baseman, and quieted the crowd. Knowing how much this story affects me, I can understand Penn’s fascination. And now, maybe with an unseen guiding draped arm, Penn can be taken out from under the shadow of his musician spouse and his thespian brothers, and finally be recognized for the talent he is.