Jonathan Richman, a polarizing figure simultaneously derided for his perceived self-indulgence and inconsistency and exalted for his brand of youth-centric indie punk with the Modern Lovers, often appears in collective memory as a caricature. His sense of humor and earnest innocence come off as either cloyingly precious or endearing. My fondness for Mr. Richman and his prolific catalog is unconditional, but I keep returning to 1986’s “It’s Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers,” and the track, “Neon Sign”, in particular. It’s a dreamy and doo-wop inflected short song about confronting the modern and finding yourself awash in romantic nostalgia for the way things used to be. Richman has a knack for imbuing the minutiae of daily life with pangs of alienation and memory, be it trips to the Corner Store, walks in Lonely Financial Zones, or when the smell of the lawn triggers long-forgotten memories of That Summer Feeling. “Neon Sign” is an anthem for old souls who retreat into a lonely world of memories when confronting the modern, and it is touching and surprising how Richman can communicate so much pain and longing in a simple song about the knee-jerk thrills of neon signs and the poignancy of twilight which “makes time stand still”. What sets this song apart though, and cements its status as a grade-A tearjerker is the revelation of loneliness articulated in morose vocal harmonies as Richman laments, “I feel that thrill, just like before/but now I don’t fit in anymore, fit in anymore”.
“It’s Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers” is pretty hard to find, but there is a youtube video of “Neon Sign”. You may want to have a box of tissues within reach.