Certain Songs #1092: Marshall Crenshaw – “Better Back Off”

Album: Life’s Too Short
Year: 1991

After Field Day, I lost track of Marshall Crenshaw for the rest of the 1980s. For whatever reasons, I never got around to listening to either 1985’s Downtown, 1987’s Mary Jean and 9 Others or 1989’s Good Evening.

Hey, the second half of the 1980s were a complicated time for me. So, assuming each record made it to KFSR, all I can assume is that I dropped the needle on a few tracks, but never found anything that I liked enough to justify spending money on a whole record.

So I’m guessing it was a couple of great reviews — plus the ability to walk down the street to Ragin’ Records and get a used CD — that helped me decide to pick up the thread with 1991’s Life’s Too Short, which has turned out to be my favorite Marshall Crenshaw record.

With a crack rhythm section of Kenny Aronoff and Fernando Saunders anchoring the tracks, Life’s Too Short featured song after song of tunes with smart lyrics, great hooks, and guitars tough enough to hang around with the cool kids in 1991. If Life’s Too Short wasn’t quite as great as contemporary power-pop records like The Posies’ Dear 23 or Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, some of the individual songs most certainly were, like the opening track, the rollicking “Better Back Off.”

Over a typically snare-heavy Aronoff two-step beat, Crenshaw layers a crunchy rhythm guitar and an opening verse aiming to give solace to someone who is down.

Now you can’t always get what you want
No, you can’t always get what you need
Sometimes you lose what you thought you had
Now that’s a real bad deal indeed
But when you’re angry at life itself
Having a bad, bad day
Don’t judge yourself so brutally
I can’t stand it when you talk that way

And with Aronoff & Saunders goosing the beat up just a notch, Crenshaw then lays into a chorus with long, aching arching melody line.

Oh baby, baby
Better back off of that stuff
You’d better take it slow
I know you know
That you’re talking about someone I love

In other words, you can put yourself down, but not on my watch. After the second time around, he brings fellow power-pop survivor Peter Case in for a long harmonica solo near rave-up that’s then followed by an equally long Crenshaw guitar solo.

After that, it’s back to the chorus not once, but twice, and for the rest of the song he’s asking her to back off of that stuff and reminding her she’s talking about someone he loves, as his guitar continues to wail well into the fade.

“Better Back Off” is probably my favorite Marshall Crenshaw song: an exquisite combination of noisy guitars, a beautiful melody, and a sly, smart lyric that you could actually picture one human being saying to another human being.

“Better Back Off”

“Better Back Off” performed live on Late Night With David Letterman

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