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Seeking Respite from Love That Feels Like War

Once marked for pop stardom, Michael Penn has settled into cult status.
Once marked for pop stardom, Michael Penn has settled into cult status.

Michael Penn seemed like a budding superstar in 1989, when his outstanding debut album (March) and single ("No Myth") broke big. Since then, however, he's never fully capitalized on his early momentum: Though in demand as a composer of movie scores, he's still often overshadowed by his brother Sean and his wife, singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. Penn's newest album, Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, was released with little fanfare on a small label in 2005, and produced no breakout hit.

Still, Penn inspires enough name recognition to spawn a fussed-over career retrospective (the new Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea), and someone at his label wisely realized what many fans had been saying: As commercially under-appreciated as it's been, Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 deserves the high-profile reissue treatment. Without sacrificing Penn's arch wordiness, the album — now packaged with a bonus disc of recordings from an appearance on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic — radiates confident, understated charm.

Given that it originally came out two years ago, "Walter Reed" isn't a ripped-from-the-headlines account of life at the since-embattled military hospital: "Tell me now, what more do you need? / Take me to Walter Reed tonight / Baby, I've lost the will for fighting over everything." Given its purpose as a place to heal when the fighting stops, Walter Reed functions as a natural subject for Penn, whose characters frequently beg for respite from love that feels like war. Of course, Penn didn't know of the hospital's troubles when he wrote the song, but it's only natural that his protagonist would find disappointment there, too.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)