A GOOD POP-POET knows when to shut up. In a song called "Losing" Suzzy Roche sings:
My heart beat and it broke
So I must
What reads like nugatory page poetry sounds like wonderful song poetry. What's in the spaces between the words (the sighs, the drawing in of air, etc.) matters more than what's in the lines themselves. The sloping caverns between the lines are filled by huge, silent gasps, so they run together as one long, whispered confession. Suzzy's singing tip-toes within what writer Ann Powers termed an "elastic middle range," where Suzzy can sound as if she's losing her breath and still seem to own every word. Her delicate guitar accompaniment is spare, and an accordion at song's opening has elegy written all over it. The result is something damn sad.
And the album "Losing" comes on, Holy Smokes, is a damn sad album. Written in the months after her father's death from Alzheimer's disease, it's an album about voices: losing (and remembering) her father's, discovering her own, and finding a place where the two melt together. "I never felt that he was anything less than his [old] self," Suzzy says in an interview, describing her father near the end. "It was the external things that got stripped away, but his essential self was still there."
In its determination to believe that last sentence, Holy Smokes is full of heartache, busted hopes, and discontent. When its melodies are buoyant and beautiful, the sensibility is rugged. It's hardened through Suzzy's songs--about disappointment (the mildly rocking "My Broken Heart"), fateful plane trips (the bouncy "Lightening Storm"), keepsakes ("Pink Ballet Slippers"), her mom's poetry ("Eggshell"), and her lost dad ("Losing"). Even with the emotional lift of "Breathing," Suzzy's song for her daughter Lucy, a sober surprise ("I'm happy/hold it a minute") is twisted with perfunctory cynicism ("Send up a flare," she adds). But Holy Smokes is also generous, at times almost sweet. A lot of the sweetness comes from that elastic middle-range of Suzzy's voice, and some of it from Stewart Leman's warm production.
For Suzzy (rhymes with fuzzy) this sort of solo soul-searching is new stuff; it's the first chance she's had to write songs for herself. Throughout an 18-year career with singing sisters Maggie and Terre, Suzzy, the youngest Roche, has been consigned to the background. As tykes back in Park Ridge, New Jersey, the sibs would pretend they were the Beatles; naturally, Suzzy was stuck being Ringo.
When the group emerged in the late '70s as sort of a post-femme post-Beatles, she was the self-made "clown" (her choice of noun)--goofing, creating diversions, authoring the quirky folk-pop trio's quirkiest presence. Yet, when the Roches became one of the biggest groups on the still male-dominated folk scene, she was their gawky hook. And when attempts to live up to commercial expectations fell short (sometimes painfully short) it was Suz who worked to "protect everyone else."
On the group's endlessly enjoyable 1979 debut, The Roches, she was allocated only one song. Yet her contribution, "Train," a hymn to "trying not to have a bad day" while dealing with New York mass transit, stands out as a great song about travel. Sitting on the PATH train, Suzzy is confronted by a fat guy, "taking up a two-person seat... drinking two beers and reading the New York Post." Finally, sweaty Suz can't stand no more. She explodes with a bald, almost gleefully lyrical yelp: "I'm miserable/and he is miserable/WE ARE MISERABLE!" It's remarkably cute.
"I've written a lot of songs about commuting," Suzzy admits upon reflection. Holy Smokes has three. The best of these is "Losing." "Road after road after road/I don't know where you are," she says, later in the song. She's singing in the voice of her father in his last months, and she's singing as herself staying with him as he loses his memory and his life. "These roads that wind around are losing me.../I drove out of your town/losing me/losing you." Here the two voices blur, and, for a happy-sad second, she owns them both.
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