Marshall Crenshaw doesn’t own a word processor, but at this point in his career, he could probably use one. “All I have is an electric typewriter; it’s just a cheap one we bought at Montgomery Ward,” says the self-effacing singer-songwriter, speaking by phone from his home in upstate New York. “I never type anything that doesn’t have at least a handful of mistakes.”
Having completed the best album of his 15-year career, at least Crenshaw can sit back for a while and let other people do the writing. Partially recorded at Alex the Great recording studio in Nashville, Miracle of Science (Razor & Tie) is Crenshaw’s long-awaited follow up to 1991’s under-praised Life’s Too Short. In the five years between the two records, Crenshaw says, “I just got preoccupied. I couldn’t really get motivated to do a new album, and it wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to, so I just stopped trying.” Crenshaw had plenty to keep him busy: a sick spouse; a book project, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ’n’ Roll in the Movies; and a live album, Live: My Truck Is my Home, that reminded him just how much he missed making records.
When the time came to work on Miracle of Science, Nashville was the logical place to do some recordingfor reasons both practical and culinary. “I’ve been in and out of Nashville for the past six or seven years,” Crenshaw says. “I really like going to work there on songwriting, and I have some good friends there.” A Nashville-based friend, Brad Jones, invited Crenshaw down to check out his studio, and soon enough the visit turned into a recording session. “I went down there, even though when he first started prodding me to come down, I had only written one song, ‘What Do You Dream Of?’ ”
Once in Nashville, Crenshaw found “a real relaxed atmosphere that I really enjoyed. I had sort of been flirting with making a new record, and once I did the one song, it sort of put me in this feeding frenzy to do more. It came together pretty quick after that.”
And what were the culinary reasons? “I like the Indian restaurant a lot, Sitar. On a couple of trips to Nashville to work on the album, I drove from New York because I like to take long road trips. More than one time, as I arrived in Nashville, I drove straight to the Indian restaurant. I love that place.”
Since his first record was released in 1982, Marshall Crenshaw has become well known as a pop songwriter with a knack for making the complicated sound simple. Much more than just the bespectacled guy who had a hit with “Someday, Someway,” Crenshaw specializes in the basic guitars/bass/drums pop song with an adult twist: The songs may sound catchy and glossy, with their chiming guitars and background harmonies, but there’s always a subtle tension or clearheaded lyric that signals a sense of melancholy or regret. Indeed, looking back over Crenshaw’s eight albums, the things that stand out are his attention to detail, his aversion to trendiness, and his dedication to retooling the endless possibilities of the pop song. He draws on the deepest of rock ’n’ roll’s roots, with his distinctive sound invoking such influences as The Beatles, Brian Wilson, and Buddy Holly (whom he portrayed in the 1987 movie La Bamba).
For all his brilliance, though, Crenshaw has put out some inconsistent collections throughout his careerwhich makes the uniformly excellent Miracle of Science worth the five-year wait. Crenshaw sounds relaxed, and his songs sound much less fussed-over than on his last few albums. A lot of this looseness can likely be attributed to his new approach to recordinghe played many of the instruments and handled production chores as well.
“I really took a hands-on approach with this record,” he says. “A lot of the records I made in the ’80s were sort of made by committee. And I had to do it that way because there was a lot of pressure and a lot of money at stake, and a lot of second-guessing going on. I’d say that after my first two albums, I’d really never had too much fun making records. There was really sort of a cloud over all those records, even though I think they have some really good moments.”
While in Nashville, Crenshaw recorded three cover songs for Miracle of Science: Ray Price’s “Who Stole That Train,” which Entertainment Weekly dubbed “incendiary”; his interpretation of Grant Hart’s “2541,” which takes on an almost country-sounding forlornness; and Billy Fury’s “A Wondrous Place.” But for an artist so highly praised for his songwriting skills, cover tunes seem out of place on a comeback album.
“To tell you the plain truth,” says Crenshaw, “it was pragmatism to an extent, because I’ve been not writing much.... I’ve been distracted, preoccupied, unfocused, whatever. Once I did “What Do You Dream Of?,” I knew I had to make another record, but I also knew that if I had to write 11 more songs, it would never happen. So I thought reinventing some old songs according to my needs would be a good exercise anyway, and that’s what I ended up doing.”
Crenshaw is clearly excited about his new album, including its “trance-inducing cover artwork you can play with for hours.” He plans to tour soon, and his road dates should include a stop in Nashville. With the Top 40 success of “Til I Hear It From You,” a song Crenshaw cowrote with the Gin Blossoms, one can’t help wondering if the singer would like to see his new record make a showing on Casey Kasem’s countdown. “This sort of thing does cross my mind, like I think ‘What Do You Dream Of?’ would make a good Top 40 single. But I know enough about the business end of things to not have a real romantic answer to that. I’m just glad it’s finished, you know?”