Michael Penn couldn’t help but stare at a sign outside the Public Works building in Burbank, Calif., near his recording studio.
The sign read, “Days since a lost time accident.” Penn repeated the phrase to himself over and over again, like a loop playing in his head.
No wonder he ended up using it as the title for his fourth album, “MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident),” out Feb. 1 on Fifty Seven Records/Epic.
“On this sign, there were all these sort of titles under it, like sanitation, streets, signs, etc.,” Penn said recently. “It was showing how many days these departments of Public Works had go by since they had an accident that cost them time.
“It had a connection with how I was feeling. It had a connection with the songs as I started to think about it. First I started to think about it in terms, ‘Well, that’s perfect for making a record.’ I’m working at the Public Works and I’m doing my best to sort out these things and communicate them. It also sort of made sense in terms of relationships, like ‘How long do you go before you get in an accident or a situation that costs you time?’ Everybody’s just trying to work and get through their life.”
“MP4” covers the emotional gamut, from the witty “Lucky One” – “I must be the lucky one/the luckiest in Luckydom; Who reached the moon/but wound up numb; Now that I’ve had my fun/here comes the millennium” – to the introspective “Don’t Let Me Go.”
It’s his most sure-footed and focused album since his promising 1989 RCA debut, “March.”
“The kind of lyrics I like generally sort of straddle that fine line between being very conversational and being very emotional,” Penn said. “These songs are a way of getting out all the things you’re thinking about and capture some kind of emotion and share a little bit of information. For me, it’s like working through my past and ideas about things. That’s the fun thing to me about songwriting: make it rhyme and communicate it.”
Aside from “Lucky One,” which was produced by Fifty Seven Records founder Brendan O’Brien, “MP4” marks Penn’s first time producing himself. Along for support are Penn’s longtime keyboardist Patrick Warren and drummer Victor Indrizzo and backup vocalists Grant Lee Philips, Buddy Judge and Penn’s wife, Aimee Mann.
(Penn and Mann recently opened a three-week tour together, which includes a four-day stint at Joe’s Pub in New York in mid-February.)
Penn also lent a hand on The Wallflowers’ long-awaited album, which he co-produced with Andrew Slater (Fiona Apple, Macy Gray). A title and release date are pending.
“We’re in the mixing stage of that album,” Penn said, laughing, “but you know what? I have a gag order on it. I’m not talking about it. I’m not talking about it.”
Instead, he’s upbeat about “MP4” and its ambitiousness.
“It was really nice to be able to do it myself,” he said. “I’m really thankful to Brendan for letting me do it and having the faith in me.”
Penn has certainly earned it. The older brother of actors Sean and Christopher Penn, he and Warren toiled in the post-new wave group Doll Congress in the mid-1980s before he landed a solo deal with RCA in 1989. That fall, “March” was released, and much to Penn’s surprise, the single “No Myth” peaked at No. 13 on Billboard’s pop chart in early 1990.
“No Myth” still has a life of its own, having appeared in several 1990s hits compilations recently. Penn finds it baffling.
“I never imagined it would get on the radio to begin with, and it’s really the only one of my songs that ever did,” said Penn, forgetting that the follow-up “This & That” reached No. 53, “but that’s just the way the business works. It’s the only time I ever had a record company really decide to turn the switch on. I’ve made records since then that I think are every bit as good.”
At this point in his career, he’s just happy that Epic is distributing “MP4.” Whether another hit song is forthcoming is up to the marketing people, he says.
“A single to me is a great song. It’s nothing else, and it has never been anything else,” he said. “I didn’t go in making the first album thinking that ‘This song is a single, this one is a single.’ At the end of the day, I knew that some of it might have been more attuned to radio than others. But there was nothing on the radio at the time like ‘No Myth.’
“It was like somebody decided to put the money behind that song, and people heard it enough because of radio exposure and MTV exposure to be able to have a chance to respond to it. That’s true with any good song, that if people hear it enough, they’ll have a chance to respond to it. For me, my job is to make every song really good; therefore every song is a potential single, and I don’t get in the way of that issue. That’s for record companies to think about. I try to do my job, and hopefully they’ll do theirs.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “It was some Disney album, probably the soundtrack from ‘Snow White’ or ‘Mary Poppins.’ “
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “David Bowie at the Universal Amphitheatre. I think it was during his ‘Diamond Dogs’ period. By then, I already knew I was going to be in music. I started playing the guitar when I was 6; I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was interested in music and radio, singing songs and learning chords.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I think it was the last Wilco album. I love Wilco.”
BWF (before we forget): There’s no myth about it, Michael Penn’s on the Web @ www.michaelpenn.com. … The Michael Penn album discography – “March” (RCA, 1989); “Free-For-All” (1992); “Resigned” (Fifty Seven Records/Epic); “MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident)” (2000).
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc