This is Michael Penn’s first appearance on the blog in three and a half years, when I named his sophomore album Free-For-All my second-favorite of 1992. Today’s song comes from the same album.
I have a theory on why Penn never became a bigger star. I think his lyrics are just too inscrutable. His one hit, ‘No Myth,’ was easy enough to decipher. “What if I were Romeo in black jeans?” is a great, memorable line that doesn’t make you scratch your head like so many of this later songs.
My #2 album of 1992 probably wouldn’t be in this spot if this list was less subjective. I don’t mean that as a slight to Michael Penn, whose sophomore album Free-For-All is a folk pop gem, but it’s hard to make an argument for this record being revelatory or important or any of the other highbrow things that land albums on lists like this.
But my list is entirely subjective, and Free-For-All was the soundtrack of one of the most important summers of my life, so damn it, here it is.
Best Albums of the 90s – #12
Free-For-All – Michael Penn (1992)
Another 1992 release, Michael Penn’s Free-For-All is more evocative of that year than any other on this list.
This album is the soundtrack of the summer of Hurricane Andrew, and listening to it today in my car, I half expect to turn the corner and see a downed ficus tree or a procession of National Guard trucks, as I did for several weeks in my Coconut Grove neighborhood.
Michael Penn waited three years to release his next album, 1992’s Free-For-All, and safely avoided the sophomore slump. On the contrary, I rank this as his best album yet.
Starting with the haunting acoustic ‘Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)’ and weaving through a string of metaphor-rich songs about love and loss, Free-For-All is a more potent and mature album than March. It’s also better produced, boasting an organic quality that’s lacking on his more polished debut.