Peter Himmelman. It’s one of those names that, nine out of ten times, will get you a quizzical look; the tenth time, though, you’d better pull up a chair, sit down, and get ready to hear the impassioned rantings of a devoted fan. The kind of artist whose work inspires unswerving love from a small-yet-tenacious group of fans, and a near-total lack of interest from just about everybody else.
If recording artists didn’t have to sell product to make a living, Himmelman would have the best of both worlds: He gets to do whatever the hell he wants — his impressively prolific output runs from slickly produced band recordings, to stripped-back confessionals, to whimsical children’s music — and he can still walk down most streets without being recognized. His music has been blessed with critical praise; his career with enviable longevity.
Screw it. He really does have the best of both — all — worlds.
His music is, for lack of a better word, unfriendly. Not that Himmelman seems like a dick; far from it. But his songs generally don’t make concessions in the interest of being accessible to a wide audience — they are intense, passionate, and mostly quite serious. As a result, his music can be a little tough to really get into. For me, it took a couple of albums to really start understanding what Himmelman had to offer. I mention this because you may not fall in love with these songs right away; they may need to sit on your hard drive for awhile before they really reveal themselves to you, and I hope you give them time to do so. Because while Himmelman’s music can require repeated listenings, it also richly rewards those listenings, and in a day and age when so much music is so quickly disposable, that’s a rare, precious quality.
All right. Enough with my proselytizing. On with the first decade of Peter Himmelman’s career…
When caring is exhausted
When kindness knows no bounds
When integrity comes easy
When love is all around
You’ll start to know the way
I feel about you
And if I could, I’d run out into the world
And tell every boy and girl
To love before love takes itself away
Just like I’m loving you
This father’s day
Raw emotion. Lyrics that read like a diary. Soul-searing delivery. Though This Father’s Day as a whole is plagued with mid-’80s production, the album, at its core, acts as a surprisingly detailed roadmap of where Himmelman would head from here. If he’d never made another album, it’s easy to believe that songs like “11:30 Pacific Time” (download) and the title track would have made him one of those great lost ’80s cult artists whose disappearance is forever being lamented on Internet message boards.
Luckily, things didn’t turn out that way. Though This Father’s Day wasn’t an earth-shattering hit, it did attract the attention of Island Records. Though Himmelman was sort of predestined to never be a huge-selling artist, Island was, at this point, still known for being extremely supportive and patient with its artists; the label may not have known how to effectively promote his music, but at least the commitment was there.
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The dreaded Second Album. For most artists, the story of its creation is a tale of not enough songs, not enough time, and too much money; for Himmelman, though — the guy seems to breathe songs — Gematria is basically an extension of This Father’s Day, with a bigger budget.
Being that the record was made in 1987, the budget doesn’t necessarily help. For people who are only familiar with Himmelman’s later recordings, the amount of gloss on these songs can be a little off-putting; it isn’t that the production is bad, necessarily, just out of place — like the Mona Lisa on a gas station bathroom wall.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, for Island’s bottom line), despite the slick production, nobody would mistake Himmelman for Starship. His focus remains struggle-bound — whether internal, as on “I Feel Young Today” (download), or outward, as on “The Trees Are Testifying” (download). Stuff this weighty rarely sneaks onto the radio.
This is not to suggest, as churlish fans of commercially marginalized artists are often wont to do, that Peter Himmelman’s music is somehow too good for the world at large. It’s just that the pop market moves quickly, it always has, and what a songwriter like Himmelman truly has to offer isn’t always immediately evident.
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As I mentioned previously, Himmelman is a prolific songwriter; in an era of growing delays between releases for most artists, his third album, the fifteen-song Synesthesia, came out just three years after his debut. It sold more or less as poorly as its predecessors, but that was becoming par for the course for Himmelman.
Sonically, Synesthesia represents a slight broadening of the palette for Himmelman; though his outlook remains unrelentingly earnest (and fairly dour), he clambers out on a few new musical limbs. “245 Days” (download) flirts with pop — it’s the closest thing to a shiny hit single he’d yet recorded — while “The Sweetest Revenge” (download) finds him slipping easily into bar-rocker mode.
It’s detours like these that both keep Synesthesia from feeling overlong and help set it apart from Gematria. At the end of the day, however, the album would prove to be Himmelman’s swan song for Island.
From Strength to Strength (1991)
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Two more years, fifteen more songs, and a new label combined to bring forth From Strength to Strength, Peter Himmelman’s fourth solo album and, to date, his closest brush with ‘hit songwriter’ status. Though Epic Records certainly didn’t have much more of a clue when it came to promoting his music, Strength was (and remains) his most polished and radio-ready album, which is how “Woman With the Strength of 10,000 Men” (download) wound up becoming a moderate AOR hit in the summer of 1991.
The song that should have been a hit is “Only Innocent” (download), probably the closest Himmelman will ever come to recording a hooky, anthemic chart smash. Alas and alack.
Overall, Strength is probably the best starting point for the Himmelman novice; there isn’t as much dark-night-of-the-soul stuff as on many of his other records; the production is big and mainstream in spots, bone-bare in others; and the songs are among his finest.
Flown This Acid World (1992)
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Coming off From Strength to Strength, Himmelman was riding the closest thing to a mainstream crest he’d ever reach; some of the advance press for Flown This Acid World said he was verging on “New Dylanhood.” Tellingly, when I interviewed him in the fall of ‘92 and mentioned this to him, he quipped, “Is there a cure for that?”
(It bears mentioning that Dylan is Himmelman’s father-in-law.)
Acid World is a really, really good album. In some ways, it’s better than Strength; at twelve songs and 52:00, it’s a slightly more manageable single-sitting listen. Sonically, Himmelman opts here for more of a rock-combo aesthetic than he had perviously, and it’s appropriate for the songs, which were leaner and punchier than recent offerings.
And damn catchy, too — it’s hard to figure out how “A Woman With the Strength of 10,000 Men” could make it onto AOR playlists and not, say, “Closer” (download) or “Child Into A Man” (download). There are greater mysteries in rock & roll, I agree, but still; this album should have been a commercial leap forward for Himmelman — he delivered the material, he played the promotional game, and he continued to build a reputation as an unpredictable, spellbinding live act.
Acid World contains, incidentally, my absolute favorite Peter Himmelman song; it was while listening to the album’s closing track, the eight-minute “Untitled” (download), that I finally, totally got Himmelman. I could tell you about the song, but you should just listen to it.
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And so we come to Himmelman’s last major-label release. It seems more than a little likely that he knew it’d be his final album for Epic, given that Skin is a — gulp — concept album about death and rebirth. I know, it’s pretty heavy-handed stuff, even for a guy as consistently ambitious as Himmelman, and it wound up being possibly the most resounding chart whiff of his career.
The critical consensus seems to be that Skin is something of a minor classic, and possibly even Himmelman’s best album, but these songs have never moved me the way his other stuff has. This isn’t to say the album is without great songs — check out “With You” (download) and “Been Set Free” (download). It’s just that in trying to build an overarching narrative, I think Himmelman lost a bit of focus.
Best album, weakest album, whatever — Skin represents the end of Peter Himmelman’s career as a casher of major-label checks. Happily, he reached the end of this particular road at a time in music-business history when to lose one’s deal and ‘go indie’ wasn’t necessarily the kiss of death; in fact, for artists like Himmelman, going this route often meant making more money in the end.
I don’t have access to his bank records, so I can’t say authoritatively whether or not this last bit has proven true in Himmelman’s case — but what I can say is that if he had been “impressively prolific” before, his release schedule would soon reach Prince-like levels. We won’t cover them all in Part Two, but since ‘94, Himmelman has issued four odds & sods collections, three children’s albums, a live compilation, and three studio albums. So far. Clearly, his fans have had a lot to sift through — and be happy about. Meet me here next week for our exciting conclusion, and so will you.