Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Shawn Colvin -“Sunny Came Home”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #7 in July 1997
The 1997 Grammy Awards ceremony was so packed with batshitness that I should poll the highlights: Aretha Franklin subbing for Pavarotti and blasting “Nessun Dorma” to smithereens; performance artist Michael Portnoy joining Bob Dylan to treat the world to his nude chest smeared with the phrase SOY BOMB; Dylan looking as nonplussed as a dude watching a neighbor’s cat piss on his hedges.
But the bouquets belonged to another ham: Ol’Dirty Bastard, who upstaged the Song of the Year winners as Erykah Badu was about to pass them the trophy. “I don’t know how you all see it, but when it comes to the children, Wu-Tang is for the children,” O.D.B. shouted. “We teach the children. Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best. I want you all to know that this is ODB, and I love you all, peace.” The winners, Shawn Colvin and John Leventhal, projected the bland hopelessness that everyone but Bob Dylan watching this remarkable evening felt. “I’m confused now!” was her response, and no one blamed her. I applauded, actually: a human statement, not the pre-fab sensitivity offered by “Sunny Came Home.”
Selling 1996’s A Few Small Repairs as a concept album about divorce, Colvin convinced herself that every other musical act before her had filled two sides of vinyl or seventy CD minutes with gibbon cries and songs about baking soda. The vehement blandness of the material coaxes the singer into uninspired performances; every song she gives its due weight, like a mother patting her children on the head; nothing is at stake, therefore nothing is delivered.
Singing like Sheryl Crow but writing like a book club member is not my idea of trenchant commentary — at least Sheryl Crow was L.A. enough to leaven her essential boringness with bad taste. Nothing on “Sunny Came Home” will disturb, to mangle a line that Greil Marcus once used about Elvis Costello’s Goodbye Cruel World, the dust settling on the furniture. When R.E.M. broke the top five with a mandolin, they had no idea to what ends their peers would employ it. The instrument signifies moist feelings, inchoate hopes. Makes sense: “Sunny Came Home” has a couple of MFA writing course details like “She opened a book and a box of tools” and “Get the kids and bring a sweater” before settling into a colorless song about — about what? Arson? A woman worn own by routine? “Days go by” is the wistful refrain. This is the trouble with a singer and production that won’t pin own the useful detail. Leventhal often has that effect. His recent work with Rosanne Cash has sanded down her quirks too. And he loves mandolins like I love Campari.
“Sunny Came Home” wouldn’t matter in any scheme had it not lingered on recurrent and A/C radio forever, like any late Clinton-era track that peaked in the top twenty. While not endorsing how ODB ruined Colvin’s moment of professional triumph, I still think children can learn more from Wu-Tang than from this vaporous non-entity.