With no face, just sound, Syd Straw works on this level throughout War and Peace (Capricorn), her modestly titled second solo album. In “CBGB’s,” a woman runs into a man she hasn’t seen for ten years and wonders if he ever did any of the things he was going to do. Just at the point where you can feel the conversation unraveling into what-do-we-say-now? clichés, a gust of hostility seems to blow the singer back, and she comes back in kind. “Hey, I’m just asking!” she says, and you’ll never untangle the complex of emotions she gets into those four words. There’s anger, vehemence, love, and a whole string of questions: Why are you so defensive? What is your fucking problem? Can’t you tell I care? Don’t you? You don’t even remember me, do you? When at the end of the song she asks again, “All the dreams you had/Have any or all of them come true?” and then answers herself, because he can’t or won’t, “If they haven’t yet I hope they do,” it’s so painful and lovely I just want to give it up, check into a monastery, and take a month to think through the way she balances the phrase.
Ever since she started singing with the Golden Palominos in the mid-’80s, Syd Straw has seemed too big for her settings: full-throated, passionate, heedless, and cramped. By the time she got into the Palominos, they were a downtown New York art band essaying a version of arena rock you just knew they hoped their friends would take for parody and everyone else would buy for the real thing. Straw’s songs were unformed and she had nowhere to go in the group. Her 1989 solo album, Surprise, was so fussed over it took me forever to hear it and I can’t remember a thing about it. But she made one recording in 1985 that put her on the same level as Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, and Alison Krauss, or rather showed she could get to the level where a singer does everything with the smallest twists and turns. That was “Listening to Elvis” by Scott Kempner—then of the Del-Lords, now of Little Kings—a vivid lament that turned up only on a New Jersey anthology called Luxury Condos Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood. Here’s Straw, in a bar, sounding like she was born in one and she’ll die in one, talking about why her boyfriend shot a guy the night Elvis died, and you’re glad. It was all worth it—Elvis’s death, her boyfriend ruining his life, the jerk he shot dying—if the end result is a performance this smart, thoughtful, and drenched in the anticipation of memories to come.
War and Peace is too long. There are too many how-could-you-leave-me? songs. By the time Straw sings “How could you leave me?” on “Madrid,” not halfway through the disc, the question contains its own answer. But from the start, you can feel an artist rising to her own possibilities.
What makes Straw her own woman in the pop game is her ability not simply to summon or project emotion but to create characters, act them out, build suspense, and shock you with what a character who’s been holding back has now dumped in your lap. Though her songwriting is often strong, and the backing on War and Peace—by the Skeletons, the been-there-forever Springfield, Mo., straight rock ‘n’ roll outfit—is fluid and taut, full of big rolling chords and theatrical shifts, what Straw does is all a matter of a singer’s rule. With changes in tone, with inflections, hesitations, and leaps, she writes the scripts of the songs and directs them, translating words and melodies into the sort of real-life, real-time speech—thrown-away asides, explosions, pleas, mutterings—you can recognize in an instant. This record can be troublesome. Given the way Straw rolls out a phrase and pulls it in, you may end up on the end of it. Straw moves slowly, deliberately, reflectively into “Love and the Lack of It,” maintaining the same distance from the subject for so long that a sense of abstraction takes over. There doesn’t seem to be any need here for an actual person—no one with her own specific desires and disasters. But then a few words build to a violent break you can’t hear coming, and the stakes go up like a fever. Pressing down on a word and lowering her voice, Straw throws you into an unpleasant room where the woman over in the corner is Nan Goldin and she’s not taking Syd Straw’s picture, she’s taking yours.
“You gave me up but I’m still within the reach of reason,” Straw sings in “Love and the Lack of It.” It’s a disturbing line, and it echoes through “CBGB’s.” The singer might be a little crazy, but too much passion often sounds like that. The Skeletons pump the shiny California sound of the Byrds through the old Bowery punk club—it’s hard to imagine the place ever had room for anything this sweet. The feeling carries you through every scene, every turn away from the audience, the singer’s hair coming loose. You begin to picture everything: the way the man in the song is killing himself for losing this woman, the way he can’t bear to listen to her for another second, the way he realizes that, no, he doesn’t have any idea who she is. “Do you remember me?” she keeps asking, and the tragedy in the song is that you can’t know. So alive, so full of the demands you make on life that life resists, the woman in this song can make you smile over wounds—your wounds, not just hers—she is uncovering. That sort of pop miracle can happen to anyone, anytime, and anything can cause it. Most performers don’t get close to it once, ever, but with Syd Straw I’d bet it’s what she’s been after for years.
Interview, August 1996