A few years back, King Kong’s Ethan Buckler taught me the essentials of a good poem or lyric: “It must have three things: the visual, the sensual, and the emotional. Want to hear an example? ‘Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. . . .’ ” Unlike his pal Will Oldham, Buckler isn’t to be found on Take Me Home, an alt salute to the safest singer-songwriter ever. Nor, strangely enough, is “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” probably the closest John Denver ever came to sounding like he’d heard the Velvet Underground. But you can hear the Velvets, or at least Mazzy Star, in the jewel of the set, Low’s funereal “Back Home Again”—which turns out to be where Cornershop got “Good to Be on the Road Back Home.” And by the way, Tarnation’s Paula Frazer, whose guest vocal gave the latter its country authority, now duets “Leaving on a Jet Plane” with Polly Harvey’s old colleague Joe Gore. It sounds like Portishead.
So welcome to the club, Country Boy. Mark Kozelek of the Red House Painters, who put this thing together, cherishes “your vacant grin” in his liner poem and smuggles Olivia Newton-John’s backing fluff into an instrumental “Fly Away.” He’s released three different covers of the nonhit “Around and Around” (perhaps unable to fully exegete “And I hope that I’m around so I can be there when I die”): here, on a dire indie a cappella compilation, and on his new EP, Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer, which also redoes a trio of AC/DC tunes as halting working-class regrets. As the Karen Carpenter revival proved, bland can trump raw in the margin’s Möbius strip. It’s that old Warhol trick: blow up the banalities of the imagery until everyone can see the pixels.
Denver, born in Roswell, New Mexico, to an air force family (coincidence?), is ripe for plucking, with catalog like his postfeminism “I’m Sorry” and post-EST “Looking for Space.” But who is the joke finally on? Is Denver’s Wonder Bread sense of wonder any more insipid than the gloomy abstractions preferred by Kozelek’s art-school friends? Of course not, and the implicit admission makes this tribute album uncommonly illuminating. Like night in the forest, he filled up their senses. Now they come love him, come love him again.