Marshall Crenshaw once wrote a small handful of perfect, timeless pop songs, and we’ve never forgiven him for it. If he’d simply started on the level that he’d reach when he settled in for the long haul, he’d be considered a solid purveyor of sparkling songcraft. But “Someday, Someway,” “Cynical Girl,” and “Whenever You’re on My Mind” were out there in the world right at the start. It’s hard to get notice for the quality work you consistently produce when all most people can see is your failure to maintain an impossible standard.
Thus it was a dogged journeyman, and not a conquering hero, who took the Passim stage on Tuesday for what’s become something of an annual tradition. (Another tradition, according to Crenshaw: showing up with a cold.) Alone and seated onstage, he switched back and forth between acoustic and electric guitar, and sang in a voice that, once guilelessly clear, has over the years yellowed and dried just around the edges.
The bare-bones approach somehow both highlighted Crenshaw’s songwriting skill and somewhat shortchanged the songs themselves. The regret in “Television Light” was clear and sharp, while “Move Now” quietly throbbed with restless paranoia. And a pair of songs — “There She Goes Again” and “Dime a Dozen Guy” — that sniffed at the post-breakup doings of ex-girlfriends for whom the singer swears he’s not still pining highlighted the changes in attitude that nearly two decades of life experience can bring to the same topic.
But many songs cried out for additional instrumentation, if not to fill them out than for focus. The time that Crenshaw kept with his left foot served as a de facto click track, and it was loud enough to be distracting. Worse than that, it actively interfered with the momentum of several songs, imposing movement on moments in “Cynical Girl” and “Whenever You’re on My Mind” that wanted to hang in the air. It also underscored his occasional tendency to let his fluid picking get ahead of himself.
Still, Crenshaw’s songs mostly held up under the stress. He could pull off melancholy, like the way that new song “Christmas You Go So Fast” zeroed in on the feeling of emptiness that follows the holidays. But much of the time, his bitterness was a feint, disguising the openheartedness of material like closer “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time.” Those songs flowed out of him like water.Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.