Greg Brown – Hallelujah anyway
When as a young child you are called by the Lord to rise from your metal folding chair in the basement of the Moose Hall and commit your life to Christ upon the commencement of the final chorus of “Close Thy Heart No More”, you remain forever susceptible to the lexicon of faith.
All subsequent straying will not alter this fact.
You are hooked on the thee and thou, and always will be. You will toddle along into a life of scuffing and sinning and just keep on a-wandering, and one day you will hear someone railing on those scary fundamentalist Christians and you will pick up your bumbling agnostical head from its existential dreamland, and you will say, Hey those are my people you’re talking about.
And you will look back down the path you have trodden, and you will not be able to feature the circumstances under which you would return to faith and fold, but likewise you cannot imagine where you would stand lacking the reckoning points set by both.
Having wrassled this contradiction every day since the Moose Hall, you will remain peeved with those who think you left the flock because you are a silly little sheep, but you will be grateful for the foundation the church provided, even as you stack your bricks in the sand.
There is a certain vocabulary you learn only through attrition and heartache, and Greg Brown speaks it. His music is suffused with what singer Dar Williams calls “the mercy of the fallen.” Wisdom can arise from contradiction — Covenant, one of Brown’s loveliest albums, is a testament to enduring love written by a man heading into his third marriage. The fallible prophets of my youth cured me of confusing the singer with the song long ago. For all I know Greg Brown is a difficult angel or a randy scoundrel, but that music of his is dead true, and I am eager to hear him speak.
We meet on a park bench, in the middle of what passes for a park, in what passes for Iowa City, although it is hardly the Iowa City of Greg Brown’s skinny days. Later, while transcribing the interview, I will hear the calls of children clambering on the super-safe playground toys, and even on the poor-quality tape you can tell the voices are bouncing off the glass canyon formed by the big flat Sheraton and the avant Hotel Vetro, which is as swank a place as you’d expect given the stainless steel and the prefix positioning of the word hotel. “High rises could change the face of Iowa City,” it said across the front page of the Iowa City Press-Citizen this morning. Cornfields, shmornfields.
It’s a big man on the bench beside me, big but not imposing. Showing a little age, the beard grizzled, the eyebrows frayed some. Wearing a porkpie hat, straw. A pinstriped navy suit coat, handstitched around the collar and open to a gray-toned wifebeater. Crocs with socks. Sunglasses. He was reading the newspaper when I approached. It is folded now, stuck inside his backpack. He draws at coffee from a cardboard cup, and now and then lights a cigarette.
For the first five minutes of our conversation, I am distracted by intermittent vibrations passing through the slats of the bench back. It feels as if we are above a subway, or perhaps the Hotel Vetro (VAY-tro, thanks very much) is settling on its fresh foundations. And then I realize the tremors occur whenever Greg Brown speaks. Boy, now that would be something. To have a voice that could rattle the slats in a park bench back.
There are over 25 albums now, and enough reviews and profiles to stock a small reference library, to say nothing of catch-all web pages and discussion threads and anecdotes and rumors and citations, and nearly always there is reference to that voice.
It has been cast in terms of bullfrogs, gathering storms, and Howlin’ Wolf. Brown’s barrel-deep and lazy-lipped delivery on the first two tracks of The Evening Call (his latest album with Red House Records) spawned online chatter including the possibility that Brown recorded with a cold, or had undergone dental work. Other listeners chalked up the changes to studio effects. One contributor offered a syllable-by-syllable breakdown (including diagrams) of how Brown was creating the particular sound using vibrato, falsetto, slurs and pitch.
These attentions speak to the reaction his instrument compels. It owes something to technique, sure enough, but above all Brown turns himself over, lets the voice find its character and speak as it will. It isn’t all about getting down low. In a line from the title track, his voice descends through the line “how low the sun,” then rises from the subterranean registers to moan in the key of beseechment.
At its classic best, Brown’s baritone swells like a foghorn from a socked-in shore, a rumble implying that the big trouble rarely comes crashing like a comet from the sky, but rather waits with malevolent patience beneath the surface. Waves come and go, but beware the undertow. And even those times when he gets to rocking back on his chair and, well, bleating, you are heartened by a man willing to abandon himself to whatever spirit that might be.
Beyond volume and tone, Brown’s vocal power is further amped by the manner in which he employs it in the parsing of lyrics. “Eugene” is a warm, rambling spoken-word piece. No melody, as such, but each line rewards close listening. Working a lazy-day groove, Brown infuses the recitation with all sorts of unexpected, understated richness: letting a little extra air slide across his vocal cords so the sound goes chalky, or the way he blows a “b” or lisps an “s”, the way he lets the tail end of the word “horizon” slip up from his throat and slide out his nose. The rhythmic change-up he throws when he hits the line, “and a good sharp knife,” — ba-da-bump-bump-bump — and then the final line, in which he uses the words as a form of percussion, making each syllable serve the rhythm. You are not surprised to hear him namecheck poets.