Post-Columbian Exchange


The fabled ’80s had already passed their big-haired zenith, but I was ready to hail Columbia for sending me albums from two artists. Both had been signed to the label through the agency of men in black: Rosanne Cash via the career path of her old man, Johnny Cash; free-ranging Terence Trent D’Arby after Walter Yetnikoff spotted him making pop noise in the U.K. Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (his 1987 debut), and Rosanne’s Rhythm and Romance (1985) and King’s Record Shop (1987), graced my turntable many a night as large-haired Ronald Reagan’s intellect gradually flew the coop. D’Arby was nominally an r&b singer, and Cash a country star, but neither was pure; D’Arby’s soul contained raucous rock ‘n’ roll, while Cash was as likely to veer onto new-wave back alleys as to cruise the adult-pop boulevard. And both were coated with a sophisticated Gotham gloss, which (as Jon Landau perceptively noted years before) seemed to adhere to every kind of act recording for Columbia.

Fifteen years on, Columbia is the only parallel missing. Rosanne Cash left for another major, while our soul man has gone as fully independent as he always promised, even as he reported to the Black Rock. A series of dreams a few years ago dubbed him with a new, more organic name, “Sananda Maitreya” (though he wisely clings to his established handle in his album title, to avoid a D’Arby crash), while Cash’s night dreams gifted her with the misty-jewel lives portrayed in her Bodies of Water short-story collection, and now in her songs. Both of these quintessential Americans have gone into geo-psychic exile: Cash relocated to New York City over a decade ago, while Maitreya thrives in Italy, a sunny culture that he says accepts him for his cultured self alone. And both dreamers have long-awaited albums out this year.

Rules of Travel was delayed a few years while Cash suffered throat polyps, but she’s fully recovered that clear, subtly husky alto now. She puts it on the line in one of her best new songs, “I’ll Change for You,” which seems both a wry promise of intimacies to come, and her continuing salute to serial-monogamous co-auteurship, now chaired by husband-producer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal. Rules of Travel features little twang (except maybe “Closer Than I Appear,” and the perils-of-touring title cut), Cash having left most of that back in Nashville with Rodney Crowell, who once played all the roles Leventhal does now.

Rules of Travel is such smooth folk-pop that when country vets Steve Earle and (the) Johnny Cash chime into “I’ll Change for You” and “September When It Comes,” respectively, the effect is like applying sandpaper to a Chevy’s candy-apple-rose paint job, dark art scratched out of the sonic contrast. Yet even the glossiest songs have their subtle but definite reality chill; Rosanne Cash is a songwriter who has often fantasized her own death, an inevitable loss she confronts in the bravely wistful “Will You Remember Me” and “Last Stop Before Home,” and tries to transcend in the September-girlish duet with her ailing dad. In its own singular vision of a soul’s liberation, Rules of Travel is her striking version of Bob Dylan’s similarly smooth-musiced existential testament, “Love and Theft” (label: Columbia); the circle remains unbroken. The new album’s only false note is not musical but graphic, a cover design that makes Cash appear trapped in a Vanity Fair designer-fragrances ad. Go back to 1990’s Interiors, and you get not just incisive music, but a stark jacket portraying Rosanne as an angry punk. (Part of me always wants her to honor that image—she saw the Clash in London during her fateful mid-’70s wanderjahr, after all.)

Terence Trent D’Arby’s Wild Card! is a much longer album, 19 cuts in 75 minutes, with its single discordant step right at the outset, when the otherwise catchy “O Divina” cops its horn charts outta Chicago, not the city but the flab-rock band of yore. The balance is smooth soul-pop, more airbrushed than past D’Arby outings, but just as infectiously groovelocked, especially when multi-gifted Maitreya muscles up, both in the subway-tube grind of “SRR-636*” and the insistent piano vamp of “Drivin’ Me Crazy.”

Sananda Maitreya is seven years younger than Rosanne Cash, not yet so obsessed with death (he claims his adopted Italy rewards artistic achievement at any age), which could account for the hippie-like goodvibesology of so many cuts. “Some Birds Blue” is a list of hopeful rhetorical questions designed to resolve a lovers’ quarrel, and becomes almost prayer-like in its compulsive chant. But then, a good part of D’Arby’s/Maitreya’s edge all along has been his uninhibited expressiveness; he seems to throw in every rhyme or metaphor that occurs to him, so we get goodies like “No Goobers no Raisinets/No Miracles no Marvelettes” and “My lamb was getting trampled but now his bleats are getting sampled.” Like Love’s Arthur Lee, Sananda Maitreya always comes up with assured-genius musical moves that let him get away with the shakiest of lyric puns. He could tackle Rosanne’s pop’s “A Boy Named Sue” as easily as falling off a blog, but his own compositions (and shape-shifting name) are just too compelling already.

Next in this genre-bending series of codependent reviews: George Jones meets 50 Cent.