San Franciscan Jonathan Richman released Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild several months ago to surprisingly little fanfare, but maybe that's the curse that accompanies his artistic longevity. In the almost four decades since Richman and The Modern Lovers introduced the stripped-down nervy rock that brought him international acclaim, he's released over twenty albums and had an undeniable impact on pop music, while periodically orbiting mainstream success. Perhaps the singer-songwriter is now taken for granted outside the reaches of his cult fan base, but if that's the case, it's really everyone else's loss. ...Raw and Wild, his first new album in four years, is another great collection of acoustic pop that indicates Richman hasn't lost anything in the interim.
Long-time fans will welcome a lot of familiar components here. Musically, Richman's using the same loosely-produced mix of acoustic guitar and drums that he's been touring with for years, and while it's a minimal setup, it's one that he and longtime drummer Tommy Larkins are adept at using to its fullest. Richman also touches upon some familiar lyrical fascinations, with songs about artists (Vermeer now joins Picasso, Van Gogh and Dali in his canon), songs sung in foreign languages (Spanish and French) and songs about the wonder of love. With his affable sense of humor at work, upbeat songs like "Es Como el Pan" and "The Lovers Are Here and They're Full of Sweat" rank among the album's highlights.
But while he might be best known for his quirky pop, it's Richman's melancholic side that surprises the most, as a number of songs focus on the passage of time and its impact on one's goals and desires. A notable remake of "Old World" -- originally on The Modern Lovers' debut LP -- finds him rejecting the traditional ways he had embraced in the song's earlier version, while just one track prior, the singer's reflections on when he was "young and intense" lead him to conclude that, now older, "This Romance Will Be Different for Me." There's a surprising feeling of wistful, knowing maturity at work here, and that added depth serves as a well-measured counterweight to the offbeat elements.
Despite these successes, the album lags in its second half; an aimless piano line bogs down the meandering "Our Party Will Be On the Beach Tonight" and the inclusion of two versions of "When We Refuse to Suffer" on the same album feels unnecessary. Still, Richman regains focus with two final songs that rank among the CD's best, pairing a beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen's "Here It Is" and his own "As My Mother Lay Lying" to offer two final perspectives on the passage of time and the specter of death. Cohen's oblique deconstruction of human relationships given the inevitability of death receives a singularly intense performance, while Richman's heartfelt retelling of his experience visiting his dying mother in a nursing home is an appropriately moving conclusion to an album that shows him exploring new, resonant territory without sacrificing his gift for offbeat stripped-down pop.