Week 28: k.d. lang, The Iconoclast

Week 28: k.d. lang, The Iconoclast

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

For years, k.d. lang nursed a shameful secret: She wasn’t entirely like her country peers. She could pass as a regular hot-blooded American cowgirl, but deep down, she knew she was living a lie. Finally, she was forced to go public with something her friends and family had known about for a long time: She was Canadian. 

Oh sure, people in the business pretended to be open-minded about Canucks. They’d smile to her face and tell her that some of their best friends were Canadian. If they really wanted to seem liberal, they’d confess that they suspected their spinster aunt might be Canadian, and that they experimented with Canadianism in college, at a party, while blackout drunk. And enjoyed it. But lang knew better. She knew seething anti-Canada sentiments lurked behind those welcoming smiles and kind words. 

Lang’s Canadian roots haunted her. Every time she closed her eyes, images of moose, hockey, maple syrup, Mounties, and people with strong accents being unnecessarily polite flashed before her like in the brainwashing scene in A Clockwork Orange. But lang felt alienated from the conservative-minded, tradition-bound country establishment as well. That’s right, she’s also a vegetarian. And a lesbian. Incidentally, I had a friend in college whose mother tried to subtly indicate that she was entirely okay with the possibility that her daughter might be gay by placing a hand on her shoulder and empathetically saying, “I really like that k.d. lang.”

The idiosyncratic pop icon didn’t even grow up liking country. But at some point in college, she fell hopelessly in love with the music of Patsy Cline. Her whole life changed. As a performance artist and feminist, lang approached country in a manner that was simultaneously ironic and sincere, postmodern and passionate. 

I find most pop-culture dichotomies to be bullshit. Life is seldom an either/or proposition. You don’t have to choose between sincere or ironic, sentimental or smartass. You can be both at the same time. In the same vein, lang seemed interested in country both from an academic angle, as a culture with often-antiquated conceptions of gender roles, and as an unusually forthright, powerful vehicle for self-expression.

Back in Canada in the early ’80s, lang fronted a Patsy Cline tribute band with a subversive streak, punningly/punishingly called The Reclines. She wore garish outfits that looked like they were purloined from Nudie Cohn’s Dumpster, and rhinestone-studded glasses with no frames. While performing “Johnny Get Angry,” she’d hurl herself on the floor in a fake frenzy. It was a performance rife with irony: a boyish lesbian performance artist angrily/apoplectically demanding that her fatally passive boyfriend act like a man and push her around a little. The cover and bonus tracks (like a take on “Mercy” that features lang growling her way through a lusty Elvis impersonation) of the 25th-anniversary edition of lang and the Reclines’ 1984 independent debut, A Truly Western Experience, capture lang at her goofiest.

The cover features lang in dorky glasses and an intentionally ugly outfit, balancing precariously on a fence in front of a big construction-paper sun and the disembodied head of Patsy Cline appearing in a barn window. That image has undoubtedly scared away plenty of folks who’d otherwise be receptive to lang’s unique take on the genre. Even the album title winks and nudges too hard, putting ironic air quotes where none are necessary. 

At the beginning of her career, skeptics wondered whether perhaps lang wasn’t the best custodian of her talent. The Nashville Banner cuttingly remarked that lang had “Patsy Cline’s sublime power… inside Pee-wee Herman’s mind.” It’s impossible to discuss lang without talking about her voice. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, holy-shit, sell-the-house-to-pay-for-this-woman’s-demo instrument of enormous range and power. It moves effortlessly from a cinematic swoon to an earthy growl. It’s understandable that early critics worried it would go to waste goofing on country.

But where the packaging of A Truly Western Experience is defiantly goofy, the contents play it relatively straight, with the notable exception of “Hooked On Junk,” an insufferable invitation to fast-forward that suggests a shotgun wedding between beatnik rambling and a bad night at the poetry slam. It’s almost as if lang included the song on the album to convince herself she was still an ironist as well as a traditionalist. Otherwise, A Truly Western Experience is a giddy romp through rollicking, up-tempo, rockabilly-flavored numbers like “Up To Me,” “Hanky Panky,” and Cline’s “Stop, Look And Listen.” “Pine And Stew” is the album’s other Cline homage; it takes the lovelorn melodrama of the country ballad to self-parodying extremes.

A Truly Western Experience brought lang to the attention of music mogul Seymour Stein, who famously gushed that she was what should have happened to country 30 years earlier. Stein signed lang to Sire/Warner Bros. In 1987, lang released her major-label debut, Angel With A Lariat. The album itself was something of an international co-production: a Canadian singer teamed up with a legendary British singer and producer—Dave Edmunds—in London to pay tribute to American roots music.

The teaming of Edmunds and lang proves inspired: Edmunds gives the disc a revved-up energy that’s unmistakably country, yet flirts with new wave. It starts off fast and seldom slows down: “Turn Me Round” even manages to make square-dancing seem punk. Lang slows things down for the melancholy “Diet Of Strange Places,” but the album-closing “Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray” is the real revelation.

Though lang doesn’t smoke, cigarettes and smoke have long fascinated her. She even recorded an entire album of songs about smoking (Drag). “Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray” channels that obsession to productive ends, wrapping lang’s yearning, lovelorn vocals in soaring strings and smoky atmosphere. It’s a big song about outsized emotions. It served as a tantalizing prelude to a big stylistic shift to follow. 

For 1988’s Shadowland, lang recruited Owen Bradley as her producer. It was a bold move. Bradley was one of the architects of the lush, polished Nashville sound; lang was still the brash kid from Canada with the million-dollar voice and quirky sensibility. Where her fellow country iconoclasts rebelled against the slickness of the Nashville sound, lang embraced it; here was her chance to make an album that sounded like Patsy Cline with the man who produced many of Cline’s greatest hits.

Shadowland represented a radical change in tone. Where Angel With A Lariat was machine-gun fast and irreverent, its follow-up took its sweet time. It’s so seductively slow and methodical, it’s hard to believe it runs a mere 35 minutes. Both a return to traditional country and a major departure, Shadowland reminds me a lot of Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Here, lang embraces her inner jazz singer: She doesn’t sing these songs so much as interpret them, getting deep inside the languid grooves and lovingly caressing and sustaining notes. 

Remove the steel guitar, and “Black Coffee” is pure jazz. A cover of “Lock, Stock And Teardrops” luxuriates in beautiful, heartrending loneliness, as does a take on Frank Loesser’s “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So.” Lang ends her tribute to country’s vanished past by showcasing and collaborating with three of her musical heroes: Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells on “Honky Tonk Angels’ Medley.” It was a celebration of lang’s roots, but also a goodbye of sorts. Lang would record only one more country album, 1989’s Absolute Torch & Twang. Then she more or less abandoned the genre before it had an opportunity to abandon her. 

Growing up, I remember hearing lang and Lyle Lovett’s names bandied about as the only two people doing interesting work in country who weren’t Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. By the time I came of age musically, neither was particularly associated with country. Lang’s country career was fairly brief—she released four albums before attaining giant crossover success as a sophisticated chanteuse with 1992’s Ingénue. Yet lang seems to have accomplished everything she set out to do. The art-school weirdo goofing on country archetypes collaborated with Loretta Lynn and shared a producer with Patsy Cline. She represents a break from country tradition and an important place in the genre’s continuum. From Kitty Wells to k.d. lang, the women of country came a long way, baby, though not without the inspiration and example of the iron-willed honky-tonk angels that came before them. 

Up next on Nashville Or Bust: 
Dwight Yoakam
Buck Owens 
Waylon Jennings 
Loretta Lynn
Toby Keith

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