It is difficult, in light of September 11, to consider Macy Gray with any degree of seriousness. She explicitly revels in Dionysian pleasures, and her mostly harmless sophomore release, The Id, appeared exactly a week after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Cultural meaning, even on a Macy Gray scale, can’t be diminished in the wake of senseless acts of mass violence—that’s when many feel its importance most deeply. Nevertheless, everything is thrown into flux. Right now is the beginning of When Everything Changed, the repercussions of which we simply don’t know. Gray’s neo-soul celebration of desire and its difficulties, arriving on the scene at a time of shock, mourning, and uncertainty, is by no fault of her own either a masterpiece of bad timing or the only thing that could cheer you up. Who knows? After all, Meet the Beatles appeared two months after JFK’s assassination.
Gray’s eagerness to please shouldn’t be underestimated. Like the mannered mod of Lenny Kravitz, a certain part of her talent lies in coalition building among radio formats. In 1997 she learned to stop worrying and love the charts after her first album, a rock-oriented Atlantic Records joint, never saw the light of day. Now she grabs hip-hop beats for cred and phatness, but looks to Motown, the ’70s, and the Top 40 for songcraft. Gray (or rather, she and her multitude of musical collaborators) avoids beats too hard for broadcast, though she never loses sight of the low end. Hummable, melodic basslines and melodies are de rigueur. On her debut, 1999’s On How Life Is, you can hear influences as far-flung as Massive Attack in the thumping strut of “Caligula” and Al Green in the neo-gospel of “I Can’t Wait to Meetchu,” but the codependent lover of the Grammy-winning favorite “I Try” could be pop music itself.
In some respects, Macy Gray might be the most unconventional pop star of the moment. Yet everything this self-described freak touches flows merrily down the mainstream. Jill Scott has Gray beat in posture if not stature (or songs); Badu aims to satisfy none but Badu and God, in that order. Squawking like Tina Turner at the bottom of a well, Gray’s voice demands not just to be heard, but rescued. In case people are more likely to gawk than listen, she has pilfered a flashy wardrobe from Muppet bandleader Dr. Teeth. The background stories all suggest that Gray is a fluke. In fact, a liberally toyed-with version of her life is set to become a cartoon, and that’s perhaps the realm where it makes the most sense. Supposedly, it never occurred to Natalie McIntyre, who stole the name Macy Gray from a neighbor’s mailbox, that she could sing until a session musician failed to show up for a date. Beyond the reluctance to express herself vocally, she had moved to L.A. to be a screenwriter, which might account for some of the high-stakes drama of her subject matter. After the failure of the first album, the mother of three returned to Canton, Ohio, until fate called her back to the music business. All of which has the ring of a good Hollywood plot, albeit one of those Alfre Woodard vehicles that open small and get incessantly replayed on Lifetime. The difficulty she was expected to have (and sure, it took a year) breaking her debut was mitigated by the promotion machine. But stardom is the opposite of happenstance; no one gets so far in the music business without ambition. A bevy of stylists, graphic designers, publicists, and makeup artists owe a significant chunk of their income to having neutralized her. The cover of On How Life Is could have been an ad for a coffee bar. “I Try”? As if Macy Gray doesn’t choke every time she tries to say anything, and stumble every time she takes a step.
In light of current events, when the country’s sensitivity to violence and terrorism has risen so high that Hollywood has postponed the release of an upcoming Schwarzenegger film because it depicts a skyscraper felled by a bomb, and pulled a Tim Allen trailer just for showing the World Trade Center, some of The Id may suffer at radio. Gray’s bluesy dark side has always produced macabre lyrical content. Desperation and madness saturate her stalkerish love affairs, when she isn’t singing about how much she loves kinky sex. Death visits her in many forms: homicide (“I’ve Committed Murder”), suicide (“The Letter”), even religious euthanasia (“I Can’t Wait to Meetchu”). No one has anything to fear from The Id‘s wishy-washy first single, “Sweet Baby,” especially considering the cute kids lip-synching in the video. But the record’s finest moment, a jaunty anthem called “Gimme All Your Lovin’ or I Will Kill You,” in which all of Gray’s obsessions converge brilliantly, now runs the risk of inappropriateness. The song describes what could be a tense scene from a Tarantino film, in which a desperate woman who has “lost her mind” demands the affections of a man who has previously ignored her by threatening him with an AK-47. The kicker in this act of romantic terrorism is that it succeeds. “It’s amazing what a gun to the head can do/My baby loves me now as hard as he can,” she squeaks triumphantly. A few days ago, this song was a hoot, and for those die-hard Eminem-fan types who can look at art without overworking their sincerity, it still is. Step even further back and it works as a metaphorical ultimatum to fickle fans who Gray fears might turn away from her sophomore release—it’s almost a neo-soul rewrite of PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me.” “Gimme All Your Lovin’ . . . ” probably wouldn’t have been pushed as a single anyway, unless to stir a bit of controversy. But it’s without a doubt the strongest, catchiest track on the record, designed to get attention the way you might remember a similar scene in an action flick.
Without comparable drama, the rest of The Id suffers from the conundrum of all post-breakout second albums. You’re disappointed either because the songs are not enough like the first one or because they’re too much like the first but not quite as good. Although The Id is named for the mental engine of subconscious drives, its spontaneity seems a bit forced. “Don’t Come Around” is a soul kiss-off in the Millie Jackson monologue mode, sung in tandem with “Heard It All Before” queen Sunshine Anderson, whose career is managed by Gray. “Sexual Revolution,” The Id‘s update of “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak,” has mad disco energy in its horns and strings and rhythm guitar pluckin’, but declaring your unconventional habits from atop such well-trod riffs deflates the sentiment almost completely. When even Lenny Kravitz has strip-mined your muse, it might be time to do some prospecting. The chances for The Id to find a place in a national consciousness completely wrapped up in its superego don’t look good. But there probably won’t be too many big breakthroughs in the next couple of months anyway—unless there’s something out there as fresh as Meet the Beatles.