When you go to see Mark Donato at the Arts Society of Kingston on April 14, I suggest that you print the lyrics from his website and bring them along. I have found that the best way to enjoy his CDs is with the script right in front of you. It’s not that the vocals are buried in the mix, trashed by studio processing or otherwise sonically obscured. Quite the opposite: Not just his voice but also his words are in plain focus, set like jewels in the center of these mixes and arrangements. And Donato’s singing style, with its mouthy enunciation, further ensures the primacy of his lyrics. His recordings are little lyric delivery systems, to use a pharmaceutical metaphor.
Nor does the language itself require the textual support. It isn’t difficult, pun-laden or excessively dense in content or in line construction. Again, the opposite: Donato is a direct, conversational and syntactically conventional writer who places a premium on plain-speak and thematic lucidity. In rhyming couplets.
Reading along just kind of seals the deal: Donato is a lyrics-first songwriter. The communicative, revelatory, sense-making impulse drives everything in his songs. In fact, it is possible to enjoy his music without the music at all, with nothing but the lyric sheet. Oh, you’d be missing a lot (his sweet harmonica playing and his crackling good band, for example), but the lyrics are whole, on paper. Unlike so much pop music, they don’t call on melody, again and again, to redeem their clichés and bridge their gaping incongruities. There are no clichés or gaping incongruities – just clean, unpretentious poet-grade writing on the subject of personhood.
Nature often bequeaths songwriters one part of the craft, as gift or fluke. The rest they have to sweat for. Some songwriters are melody-first: All the other elements of song must adapt and serve, for the melody is the given. Paul McCartney, anyone? The words could have been “Yesterday,” “Scrambled Eggs” or “Chardonnay.” That tune wasn’t changing for any mere language.
It is a testament to McCartney’s oft-maligned skill as a lyricist that those songs sing and scan as well as they do, maintaining conversational rhythm and natural emphasis like rock ‘n’ roll’s very own Puccini (but without the unfair advantage of being in Italian). Try tapping words into curvaceous melodies like that sometime without ever asking two syllables to act like one or one like three, without asking an iamb to pose as a trochee: not easy. Sir Paul may not have an awful lot to say, but he says it immaculately.
Some songwriters are rhythm-driven. They are often found in bands that are in it for the groove, the poor Larry, Curly or moe to whom the songwriting duty falls. Their challenge, if they choose to accept it, is to rise above funky exhortations to party or to fight the power or – in clever food metaphors – to have sex all night long. Kidding, kidding. Gravy. Shortnin’ bread. Pigs in a blanket. Tacos.
And then there are the lyrics-first types. Of these, some are not especially purpose-driven. Brilliant gab-bags like Dylan, Tom Waits or young Connor Oberst spin stanza after charming stanza in standard repeated verse forms. They break for lunch and then write 11 more verses, any one of which you would kill for. The verse forms are the given, overstuffed by the generous Muse.
Other writers are acutely purpose-driven, like Randy Newman, who, when he pushes himself a little, can write sui generis art songs like “The World Isn’t Fair,” “The Great Nations of Europe” or “Piece of the Pie”: astonishingly coherent and complete arguments in novel musical forms, on par with the best of the Broadway writers – only more subversive and smarter.
Or consider the strange case of Kevin Barnes, the writer/composer behind the band Of Montreal. Early in his career, his mode was pure psychedelic pastiche: the natural marriage of Carl Stalling and Lewis Carroll. Then, starting with 2007’s Hissing Fauna: Are You the Destroyer? – a tour de force document of a depressive episode – Barnes transformed into one of the most alarmingly confessional, this-is-my-therapy writers in rock history, at the same time forsaking rock styles in favor of dance beats and synth pop, which better suited his new lyrical urgencies. Formal regularity and pop verities be damned; unfettered self-disclosure is the given. It goes where it goes, and all the other elements of songcraft hold on for dear life. The rambling, vitriolic love songs on his new album, Paralytic Stalks, tax his fertile musical imagination to its limit. It is breathtaking, though not for everyone.
Mark Donato, too, is a confessional songwriter, working his business out in a sweet Byrdsish, jangly folk and an occasional tussle with reggae-inflected rock. But in contrast to the feverish Barnes, Donato operates more in the spirit of Wordsworth’s famous description of poetry: the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility. You get the sense that the songs represent the culmination, the yield of various experiential and psychological processes – not resolutions but clarifications, laying plain the core issues of, like, being someone. In rhyming couplets. Donato distills insight from experience efficiently, maintaining that “show and tell” balance between image and abstracted truths, as in the self-eulogizing “Speeches from My Wake” from his CD I Haven’t Wasted All this Time Alone:
He was a man of subtle talents
We were fortunate to witness
He could lose his balance
And get it back like nobody’s
He held back more than he could ever tell
For fear of poisoning the well
Who can know what treasures lay
In everything he didn’t say
The art is in how casual it all seems, and how utterly free of self-absorption. Donato’s “I” is actually kind of impersonal. It is one whom anyone can inhabit. When he does undertake self-interrogation, it is performed with ample wit and empathy, but also with a bit of nihilism – a sense of the inevitability of failure. In “Lives of the Poets,” the singer takes a strange solace in the forgone doom of poets (referencing Delmore Schwartz, an especially doomed mid-20th century poet’s poet):
Dying in the halls of sad hotels
Trying to describe the garbage smells
Hoping to last the night
And get this one thing right
Yikes! Sometimes, Donato’s songs remind me of the way that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. would adopt a childlike language and sensibility in order to highlight things that we take for granted, to isolate the unrecognized assumptions that gird our perceptions. This technique is used to great effect throughout Donato’s relationship-as-creation-myth concept album, A History of the Boys and Girls. “My Decision to Medicate” sounds like Seuss (or Ogden Nash) in its rejection of the vanity and selfishness of suffering:
I made my decision to medicate
Despite the chances of putting on weight
Despite the other side effects
That have to do with sleep and sex
Given the hours and days and years
That I’ve lived with indefensible fears
That some would call insane
I know I must be causing pain
…Unless you’re in love with your anxiety
I suggest you hold the piety
If you think this pain is necessary
Explain it to your family
What is so appealing about Mark Donato’s lyrics-firstness is how distinct and natural his voice is, quite apart from his physical voice. It is a literary entity. But if nature vouchsafes one gift to songwriters, it is in the other dimensions where they most show their resourcefulness. Donato’s troubled vision of adulthood goes down smooth in the rollicking, tuneful ease of his sound.
Mark Donato will be performing along with Two Dark Birds at the Art Society of Kingston on Saturday, April 14 at 8 p.m. ASK is located at 97 Broadway in Kingston. The cover charge is $8. For more information, see www.markdonato.com, www.twodarkbirds.com and www.askforarts.org.