This Penn Still Writes Well

You've got your MP3s; now here's MP4, Michael Penn's, as they

like to say, "long-awaited" fourth album. The name sounds familiar?

Well, he's Sean's brother and Aimee Mann's man (oh boy!), but most

important, he's the singer/songwriter whose first album, 1989's

March, got noticed via a hit single, "No Myth" — which,

unfortunately for him, lived up to its name, as not many folks even

remember it now. His second release, Free-For-All (1992), was,

well, darker, and the third, 1997's Resigned, got good reviews

and quit. MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident), however, finds

Penn back on the job — and with his best work yet.

"Lucky One" (RealAudio

excerpt) kicks, and I mean kicks, things off, with bells and

whistles and crunching guitars and lyrics that embed themselves in

your head like that creature in "The Wrath of Khan" who took over

Chekhov's brain: "Things got bad, things got worse/ I got loaded in a

hearse/ When all I needed was a nurse." Throughout the album, wit

piles itself on bittersweet wit and the songs fairly ring out,

exuberant at all costs. Much of it is Beatles-esque power pop, but

fortunately Penn hasn't got any blinding Fab Four obsession, and the

album is filled with acoustic guitars erupting into shimmering

electric drizzle and comely harmony vocals to match (from Grant Lee

Buffalo and the aforementioned Mann on some tracks).

Those familiar with his past know that Penn's a sharp chronicler of

romance, and that quality continues here. "High Time" (RealAudio

excerpt), for example, is a high point, a wonderfully percussive slice-of-pop emoting that showcases Penn's distinctive voice, which sounds a little like singing through gritted teeth — passionate, sometimes even anguished. Another highlight is "Bucket Brigade" (RealAudio excerpt), an affecting mop-up-after-the-affair song that features such wrenching lines as "He's gonna mimeograph/ A statement he's preparing/ That he wanted the world/ It was only the heart/ The heart of a girl."

Heart is what it's all about, after all, and this album certainly has

one, which it wears proudly on its sleeve. The subtitle, wryly lifted

from one of those grotesque signs one sees near factories, conveys what romantics like Penn know all too well: that the heart, when it's

working hard, is always accident prone.