What's in the Bag?

by: Marshall Crenshaw

If you had to pick the single most dominant lyrical theme in the history of postwar pop music, it would probably be love, and on his first few albums Marshall Crenshaw wrote better songs about girls -- longing for them, and trying to win them over -- than anyone of his generation. Two decades on from his instant classic debut, Crenshaw still has plenty to say about love, but 2003's What's in the Bag? finds an older and more world-weary Crenshaw singing about men and women, not boys and girls, and contemplating a world where relationships are often hard work without the promise of a happy ending. What's in the Bag? begins with "Will We Ever?," in which Crenshaw takes the voice of a man on the road late at night, wondering when or if he'll ever see his wife again, and the melancholy beauty of the lyric is matched by Greg Leisz's steel guitar and the vibes of Bill Ware. It's a powerful and richly evocative performance, and it sets the stage for the rest of the set, in which Crenshaw's characters are haunted by the specters of failed romances, memories which are at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and the struggle to move on from life's disappointments. The mood is lightened on a pair of R&B covers, but the plaintive tone of "Take Me With You" and "I'd Rather Be With You" still feels consistent with the album's theme of men trying to make love work, under difficult circumstances. In short, if you're looking for a shot of pure pop heaven to bring you a smile, What's in the Bag? is not the album for you. However, anyone who admires the craft of Crenshaw's songwriting (and his increasingly potent guitar work) will want to hear this set -- this is beautiful, affecting, and emotionally powerful music, and makes it clear Crenshaw still has plenty of surprising things left to say after all these years. ~ Mark Deming

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