What can be said about a legend like Jonathan Richman that hasn’t already been said? Emulating his hero Lou Reed with his ’70s proto-punk band Modern Lovers, Richman posed questions like: Why wasn’t Picasso ever called an asshole? The Lovers’ tales of social anxiety, sung in a quavering tenor, mix garage-y song structure, ’50s sock-hop sweetness and a sort of idiot-savant charm that is undeniably Richman.
As a solo act, Richman has carved a weird little niche for himself. These days he plays almost strictly acoustic, backed up by a simple drum kit manned by Tommy Larkins. You never know if you’ll get charming Richman or awkward Richman; maybe he’ll be dressed as a pirate, maybe he’ll sing in Spanish or French — why? That’s just Richman being Richman. His latest release, 2010’s O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth continues in the same vein as his other solo work: acoustic songwriting accented with accordion, organ and female harmony, delivered with production that’s beyond lo-fi — try anti-production, or un-produced and you’ll be closer.
At times Modern Lovers’ Richman appears: “If you want to leave our party just go, right away; there’s no need to be polite and just stay.” Elsewhere he’s singing in French like a mustachioed troubadour serenading you over bad red wine and stinky cheese. But in the end, Richman delivers so much childlike sweetness in his simple songwriting you can’t help but be charmed. Equal parts acoustic folksinger, punk rocker and cheesy lounge rat, Richman is not the greatest songwriter of his generation; he is however the greatest Jonathan Richman of his generation and that counts for a lot.
Jonathan Richman plays 9 pm Thursday, Nov. 29, at WOW Hall; $12 adv, $15 door.