Astoria: Portrait of the Artist
Tony Bennett’s new album, Astoria: Portrait of the Artist, presents itself as a lovely idea: a musical autobiography, told in songs both classic and new, centered (or so its title might lead us to expect) on his boyhood in Astoria, a by-now-much-changed working-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.
And it all sounds lovely — tender, too, even sweet. There’s no macho aggression when Bennett sings about women, no sense (as there can be with Sinatra) that he’s a man of the world who’s going to get anything he wants. Instead he sounds boyish, almost awed. Often he’s accompanied just by piano, sometimes — in a hush so deep you’d swear you could hear his heartbeat — only by the whisper of solo acoustic bass.
But the autobiographical concept doesn’t sink very deep. If you didn’t deduce it from the album’s title, you might never know it was there. The songs might evoke hope for the future, or the ever-present search for love. One song, ”Antonia,” is about Bennett’s younger daughter. But none of them sounds specific. There’s an easygoing 1932 tune, ”Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet,” which (or so a press release says) reminds Bennett of Astoria. But it can’t evoke the taste or smell of the neighborhood; it can’t tell us how Bennett really grew up.
And then there’s a larger question. All this music is written and sung in the style that dominated popular music before rock & roll — which also means before the ’60s, before feminism, before what we’ve come to accept as the dawn of modern life. Men, in those days, were men; marriage was forever; women comforted men and cooked their meals. No, Bennett never explicitly sings that here. But every time he does sing about marriage — in, let’s say, Jerome Kern’s ”The Folks That Live on the Hill” — the very sound of his music drags me back to an age when wives were expected to spend their time keeping house. And that, I’m afraid, tells me why the classic American popular song might be going out of style. It’s hard for me to listen closely to Astoria without a wry smile. B-