Listening to The (Not So) Modern Lovers Forty Years Later

Maya Charlton

I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point — and, of course, I’m making overdramatic generalizations here — alternative rock music turned into bearded white guys singing in falsettos about the true meaning of life or love or whatever over wishy-washy Charlie Brown-style drumming. Honestly, I’m tired of pretending I like Bon Iver so record-store hipsters think I’m sensitive and thoughtful. To me, nothing is more grating than a band that takes itself too seriously. Thank God, The Modern Lovers are not that kind of band. Their eponymous debut and final album is at times ecstatic and raucous, at times melancholy, lonely and oddly retrospective for a band with the word “modern” in their name.

With mainly irreverent, but at the same time strangely relatable, lyrics and consistently good beats (shout out to drummer David Robinson, who went on to join The Cars!), “The Modern Lovers” is an album for being young and driving to nowhere in particular at 2 a.m. It’s the rare album that is an ode to every aspect of life. It has songs like “Roadrunner” that make you sing along at the top of your lungs and do awkward Hillary shoulder shimmies while try to keep your hands on the steering wheel (“Roadrunner, roadrunner/going faster miles an hour”). It has songs like “Hospital” that make you tear up to when there’s no other car on the road and you start thinking about people you really shouldn’t bother thinking about (“I go to bakeries all day long/there’s a lack of sweetness in my life”). It has songs like “Pablo Picasso” that make you laugh and roll your eyes (“some people try to pick up girls/and get called ***holes/this never happened to Pablo Picasso”).

However, I suspect “The Modern Lovers,” much like “The Catcher in the Rye,” emotionally resonates the most when you’re between the ages of 15 and 25. Jonathan Richman, the lead singer, guitarist and sole songwriter of the band, was 21 when most of the songs on the album were recorded, and he doesn’t bother pretending to be any older, wiser or more grandiose than a 21-year-old. The album proudly wears its immaturity on its sleeve with drunkenly hiccuping lyrics like “tonight I’m all alone in my room/I’ll go insane if you won’t/sleep with me I’ll still be with you/I’m gonna meet you on the astral plane”. The Modern Lovers don’t try to be sophisticated or even serious, but they do try to be as honest as possible. That’s the best part about this album. It’s raw, vivid, precise, wry, and has managed to avoid almost all clichés (except on the track “Girlfriend” because Richman thought misspelling “G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N” was clever).