THE PRESENT AGE has a habit of demanding sustained output from its artists, even at the cost of substandard quality Witness the proliferation of Saturday morning cartoons in response to the nationwide popularity of "The Flintstones." What followed was a wave of amazingly identical animated series, all featuring a family and it, highly humanoid housepet living in an unusual situation, i.e. on another planet. The fact that many of these disappeared from the networks within a few months hints at the disparity between perceived demand and real satisfaction, and underlines the need for artistic endeavors to proceed relatively independent of popularity indexes.
Recording artists, too, are victims of this marketing malaise. Frequently groups or solo performers release albums that sound like they were cranked out just to appease fans hungry for new tunes from their idols. These tracks are usually written around familiar themes and sound remarkably similar to their predecessors on earlier records, evoking the mass response: "This sounds just like the last one!" Surprise, surprise. Some fans, weaned on the jukebox mentality, get by on these give-the-people-what-they-want productions. But others, interested in artistic growth, look for innovation and creativity, risky though these may be in an era of intense competition from imports lurking just beyond the immigration desk. Happily then, there is Jimmy Buffett, who throughout his career has disdained dictates from Nashville and elsewhere and developed his own distinctive musical style. His latest album, Somewhere Over China, combines old and new tunes in a variety of settings, casting a different light over the Buffett mystique and perhaps proving once and for all there is more to the man than just Margaritaville.
Buffett's 1980 release Coconut Telegraph got the boot from at least one critic, who accused him of "cruising." That LP may have been the last featuring the mellow life in the islands, though it had certain serious overtones indicating Buffett had done some growing up. Some of the tracks, such as those about his little daughter and his memories, appeared to indicate the aging of the man who claimed he was "Growing Older But Not Up." Coconut Telegraph bore some thematic resemblance to Volcano and Son of a Son of a Sailor, released in 1979 and 1978 All three focused on the carefree life of the wooden-boat sailor, with references to Montserrat and St. Thomas and only occasional glimpses of the serious side of a singer usually photographed in mid-laugh.
Somewhere Over China not only features Buffett in a different time zone: it also reveals a philosophy more developed--with age, perhaps, like a fine wine--that may be Buffett's most important contribution to our times. Instead of palm trees and seashells, his songs feature people seeking fame and fun in places ranging from New Orleans to Rangoon. Though the pursuit of either goal may seem frivolous to hardened work-ethic types, it is a relief to find someone who incorporates romance with trying to earn a living during these days of Reaganized recession.
FOR ROMANCES IS what this album is all about. Not just the obvious kind, chasing after the girl or boy of your dreams, but the romance too that colored attitudes toward adventures of old. Today people are educated to be skeptical of heroes who skirted the globe alone, or became the first to ascend Mt. Fuji, or flew across an ocean singlehandedly, but Buffett ascribes to them the old allure of glory, bravery, and unadulterated accomplishment He harks back to the days when people were more innocent--more easily deluded, the cynics will say--when there was no People Magazine to pry the lid off luminaries' private lives, thus preventing the public from being led astray by their admiration for less-than-saintly individuals. Romance may not be realistic--but it's nice.
Buffett treats this romance in his own tunes as well as through covers of others' songs. The title track, dedicated to "The Crazy Flying Tigers," commemorates Claire Chennault and his band of fighter pilots in the war-torn China of the 1940s. The realists may complain that Buffett paints a naively roseate picture of the Flying Tigers, ignoring accidents, enemy gunfire, lice-ridden facilties and other, equally factual aspects of the adventure. Shut up and relax, they must be told, for this album is a romantic interlude, not a History 1711 text.
These same critics can find sage advice in the lyrics of "Somewhere Over China," where Buffett comments:
We're all somewhere over China, heading East or heading West
Taking time to live a little, flying so far from the nest
Just to put a little distance between causes and effects...
If you think about it, most of us are somewhere over China. Remember when you were a little kid digging a hole in the sand, and all the adults who walked by told you to keep going and you'd end up in China? We all grew up with these aspects of romance. Did any of those elders ever add that you'd have to scoop out boiling lava when you hit the middle of the earth en route? Of course not. They--like Buffet--were content to nurture and protect romantic ideas without exposing them to reality.
Buffett invokes personal nostalgia in some of his tunes. "Where's the Party," which has been getting a little air time on Boston stations lately, describes the feeling of not wanting to be in the right place at the right time, because the right person might not be there "If I Could Just Get it On Paper" is a tribute to William Faulkner. A quote from Faulkner's Mosquitoes adorns the album jacket, and the song is a wry view of Buffett's long range goals. He longs to write down his life as it happens, "but it's harder than it ever looks." An obvious and unoriginal platitude, perhaps, but it contributes to an understanding of Jimmy Buffett as more than just a funseeker.
"I Heard I Was in Town" is Buffett's sentimental report on returning to Key West--once the singer's home--in the wake of his fame. He notes the way things change as life progresses: "Don't it seem funny/Word gets around/I heard I was in town"
One measure of a singer/songwriter's versatility is his treatment of non-original material. On Coconut Telegraph Buffett recorded a contemporary version of the 1930s hit "Stars Fell on Alabama." On this album, there are two covers, both of which recall bygone days of steamships sailing away for distant shores "Steamer," copyrighted by John Scott Sherrill last year, is a hauntingly sad reminiscence of lost love in a setting of crowds seeing a ship off at the dock. The imagery evokes the streamers, balloons, straw boaters and brave smiles known to us children of the 1960s only through black-and-white movies. But the romance, sorrowful though it may be, is there:
...it's always that steamer