Most of John Conlee’s hits are about totally screwing up or being totally screwed over. In one of the few exceptions, 1983’s would-be-smug but completely unconvincing “Common Man,” John, just a beer-drinkin’, truck-drivin’ Nashville fellow, says “highbrow people lose their sanity”—and believes his life’s better than that. But thanks to the miracle of this Classics CD’s near-chronological programming, it comes right after the hilarious “I Don’t Remember Loving You” (also 1983), featuring lowbrow John in a mental institution, crayon in hand, suffering from the amnesia he’d induced in himself to forget the pain of his last break-up. So there you are.
Deliberate self-deception is a longtime country staple: making believe you love me, making believe I don’t love you, making believe I never lost you, making believe I never cared that I did. But in country all this deceit is delivered with such good-natured self-mockery that it acts as a bond between singer and audience. Yeah, isn’t it funny, the way we make such dopes of ourselves! Conlee’s first big hit, “Rose Colored Glasses” (“They keep me from feeling so cheated, defeated, when reflections in your eyes show me a fool”), could be classified as a sad song, but I doubt that anyone feels sorrow while it’s playing. So his music only seems to be about defeat.
And anyway, Conlee generally chooses to wallow rather than dissemble. His basic theme is not getting over it (the nuthouse song being the apparent exception that very much proves the rule); this can mean being true to a true love, but more often it means not letting go of a lost love. In “Miss Emily’s Picture”—a song that’s far more maniacal than the one from the psycho ward, though nothing about its words or their delivery indicates that anyone involved in creating it finds it the least bit abnormal—poor forsaken John is perpetually straightening the long-absent Miss Emily’s picture: the one by his bed, or the one on his nightstand, or the one on his wall. Or he’s pulling Miss Emily’s picture from his billfold, to show to the boys at the bar.
It’s in his perseverance—in the face of disaster and in being a disaster—that he’s triumphant. “Clinging to the broken heart inside my head”! The arrangements are heavily orchestral, and since he sings in a high nasal heartbreak that’s rich but not too rich, he comes across as a regular guy swamped in large emotions. And with quasi-gospel background vocals, lots of this feels like a sing-along: a community of feeling. You get buoyed up, in that sound, in that community.
Except “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” a song I love unreasonably, the one here I’d take to a desert island: It’s beyond category and beyond comfort. It defies musical description. I can say, “Oh, it’s countrypolitan with disco strings and a hint of disco spaciness,” which is correct but conveys nothing of what it’s like. The opening steel guitar line could be one of those sad, repeating architectural riffs that Tom Verlaine would build songs around—but instead, the song goes on its country oompah way. The lyrics don’t really give you the plot. You get a detail here (she’s fumbling for her keys), a metaphor there (she jumps the fence but doesn’t get free), a snatch of conversation (“Mama insisted that I stay awhile”), and you have to connect the dots yourself. “She’s breakin’ in a new routine for the man who walks the floor.” I guess it just means he’s home alone, pacing, while she’s working up her alibi. But with the background singers whispering “she said” into an echo chamber, it all sounds ghostly. “Walking the floor” feels like walking the plank. And you’ve got percussive orchestral riffs that had originated in disco, disco-pomp, except there’s neither pomp nor dance here, just the empty floor and the man who walks it. Spooky.