Michael Penn - No Myth
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
1990 wasn’t as dire as rockists remember, but it was a year in which we saw some of the worst hits in history, immune to any matchless prose issued in its defense. For every “Enjoy the Silence,” Janet Jackson’s “Escapade,” LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl,” or Johnny Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way,” you had Tommy Page’s “I’ll Be Your Everything,” Alias’ “More Than Words Can Say,” Vanilla Ice’s “Play That Funky Music,” and a troika of Wilson Phillips Top Fivers that weren’t “Impulsive.”
A year dominated by Teddy Riley’s new jack on the R&B; side and the progeny of Milli Vanilli and New Kids on the Block on the other is one defying categorization. Even so, one thing was certain: if you led a guitar-bass-drums combo you didn’t stand a chance in hell of scoring on Top 40 radio unless your hair needed a rabies shot (Phil Collins doesn’t count, in part because he was blessedly bald). One exception was Michael Penn’s “No Myth,” a #13 hit which featured an honest-to-god strummed acoustic guitar hook. Even more astonishingly, it was intelligent and memorable, much better than Jude Cole’s contemporaneous “Baby It’s Tonight,” another chart hit scoring by virtue of his anachronism. Never mind that “No Myth” flaunted its intelligence almost as gauchely as Matthew and Gunnar Nelson did their Shetland pony locks; from the way Penn’s keening chorus falsetto luxuriates in the allusions to “Romeo” and “Heathcliff,” you know he’s a guy for whom picking on girls who haven’t read Wuthering Heights matters as much as picking them up. Maybe more. This makes him a terrific asshole and too studious an Elvis Costello fan, but “Veronica” was a hit in 1989; somebody needed to fill the niche.
“No Myth” has none of the demerits you’d accept from someone who went on to marry Aimee Mann, score Paul Thomas Anderson films, and subsist on NPR cred. Penn’s whiney pipes suit lyrics whose wisdom is encapsulated in the declarative simplicity of the admission, “She hopes we can be friends” and in the useful “We said goodbye before hello.” Handling bass, all guitars, and a galloping drum program that’s the song’s most striking element, the auteur palliates his Dylan-esque sneer with a demo-style directness. That’s the best that can be said about “No Myth”—it’s a demo unsullied by additional tinkering (a lesson Costello could have learned in 1990). How Penn won the Best New Male Artist in that year’s MTV Video Awards is anyone’s guess; the video for “No Myth” showcases the two-dollar surrealism which delights fourteen-year-old boys and semioticians. Maybe the voting panel was as beguiled by the sight of a young man playing guitar as they once were by ugly Englishmen in asymmetric haircuts playing synthesizers.
Like all the best rock songs, “No Myth” asks questions it refuses to answer; its creator’s sullenness dovetails with the song’s mystery. We know (and he knows we know) that Penn isn’t Romeo in black jeans; he’s a guy with long bangs and a rather lugubrious self-possession, brother of one of Hollywood’s more masochistically naturalistic actors, too anonymous to be the subject of any myths, be they romantic or aesthetic. The most telling moment occurs during the bridge, in which Penn slings polysyllabic rhymes like Ted Nugent doing scales. It’s lovely, plaintive; bravado replaces snark. Imagine Michael turning into brother Sean, wooing Elizabeth McGovern in Racing with the Moon. You understand how he beguiled Aimee Mann.