Pop Croons

I’ve been listening to a lot of Iggy Pop and the Stooges on my iPhone lately and this has reconfirmed for me that “Search and Destroy” from 1973’s Raw Power is at the very apex of great rock and roll songs. The lyrics (“I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm/ I’m a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb”) are pure poetry. I know that rock critics who say such things sound pretentious. Believe me, I know! But “Search and Destroy” is a morbidly beautiful little poem about the violence of lust, made darker and more desperate with its imagery borrowed from the Vietnam war. The sophisticated form, with its internal rhymes within the rhyming lines, is masterful. I think of Iggy in this period as continuously debauched; I don’t know if it’s true when he wrote. Whatever state he was in, this is inspired, yes, but also intensely focused–disciplined, even–poetry writing. Put together with the menacing music and performance of that music by the band, this is rock and roll of a very high order.

I bring up Iggy today because of this news report from Reuters about his new digital-release-only album Apres, comprised of old standards originally by Frank Sinatra, Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf, for example. He had to go to Paris, he says, where he recorded his last album Préliminaires (2009), a collection of arty songs inspired by a novel of French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq, because his American label (Virgin has produced his most recent titles) doesn’t know what to do with a crooning Iggy. “The American company would have preferred I do a rock album with popular punks,” Pop tells a news conference, presumably meaning bands like Green Day and Blink-182. Pop’s last rock and roll album, Skull Ring (2003), used just such a star-studded backing lineup.

Here’s more of the dying record industry’s flabby imagination in action, trying to get Iggy to piggyback on the ever popular “duets” concept that some more legitimate genius originally saddled Sinatra himself with in his last years to create instant crossover gold. Santigold, another iconoclast of pop music whose second album Master of My Make-Believe is also new this month, has said that she, too, was being pressured by her record company to make an album with big names in dance music. She found the chemistry lacking, so she headed off to Jamaica to work on her own, mostly and with artists more her style, like Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

In any event, I want to tip my hat not just to Iggy’s (and Santigold’s) fierce independence, but to his consummate artistry. Iggy is the owner of an amazing instrument in his voice. Even if you don’t have an ear or taste for rock and roll singing, I think if you listen to his performance on “Search and Destroy,” you can’t help but notice how much power he wields in that song, especially when you consider that he’s almost whispering in much of it. Whispering? I don’t know how else to describe that timbre of voice. It’s not a scream or a shout (at first), which you might expect from what sounds like a boast. It’s confiding, insinuating. It’s not the bombastic baritone sneer or warble you hear in Pop songs like “The Passenger” or “China Girl.” Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate his delivery in those songs, as well.My point is, Iggy has always been a crooner–and those latter two songs also demonstrate that ably–with a broad palette of tones in his instrument, which he uses with unself-conscious virtuosity.

In short, I’m not surprised he’s testing his mettle with more “subtle” material. I expect, based on what I’ve heard and seen of his performances of these songs, that his mettle is more than a match for these songs.

And on that note, I’ll close with one of Iggy’s virtuoso performances from his penultimate album, a mournful little song called “I Want to Go to the Beach”:

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