Jonathan Sings! marks the beginning of a transitional period in Richman's career. Over the next four years Richman would release three albums on three different labels before settling in to a long tenure with Rounder Records and then another long tenure with Neil Young's Vapor Records.
Jonathan's new Modern Lovers included backup singers the "Rockin' Robins" (Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington), as well Ken Forfia on keyboards, former Rubinoo "Curly" Keranen on bass, and Michael Guardabascio on drums. Utilizing two female backup singers in particular gave the album a different flavor than his previous releases. It's a good choice because it gives Richman someone to play off of with his sometimes conversational singing style.
For the most part the silliness of the Beserkley years is absent here. There are no Rockin' Leprechauns, Abominable Snowmen, Martian Martians, Parties In The Woods, or Dodge-Veg-O-Matics on this album. In their place is a set of very simple and heartfelt songs that focus on life's simplest and most profound pleasures. The album is all about the things that make Jonathan Richman happy: love in a stable relationship ("Somebody To Hold Me," You're The One For Me"), summertime ("That Summer Feeling"), music ("This Kind Of Music," "Those Conga Drums"), childhood nostalgia ("Not Yet Three," "The Tag Game"), special places ("Give Paris One More Chance," "When I'm Walking"), and doing your own thing without worrying about what others think ("The Neighbors," "Stop This Car"). Think of this album as musical prozac.
It's hard to call this a more "mature" Jonathan Richman. A sense of child-like wonder and innocence is still at the core of these songs, despite the fact that the self-conscious silliness of some of his previous work is missing. "Not Yet Three" is perhaps Richman's finest articulation of what makes the child's perception of the world superior to the inevitable cynicism that accompanies adulthood. This song could have been my son's theme song when he was around three: it very much reminds me of his absolute determination to take full advantage of every bit of joy the world has to offer, a quality that has already begun to fade somewhat at five. "That Summer Feeling" is a Richman classic that he would later re-record, and would remain in his core live repertoire for years.
In the liner notes to the 1993 CD reissue of this album, Richman is typically modest about the quality of the album:
Personally, I can't listen to this record...I loved the band that made it, and I loved the songs, but I sang the songs bad and the recording technique didn't capture the way we really sounded. It was sterile in comparison to the real thing.
Jonathan actually has a point about the recording technique, it does sound a tad sterile, but not so much that it diminishes my enjoyment of the wonderful performances. What a shame that this fantastic album has been out-of-print for so long.