It should be said that Lennon's concepts tend to be as thin as a potato chip. His first, 1997's Maniac, revolved around the grad school life of endless mixers and library-stack ennui. On 1999's eponymous effort, Lennon commented on his debut album and on his newfound career, detailing life's tiniest moments in a cheeky tone that poked fun at the gut-spilling excesses of his peers. Call it ironic autobio or the discreet charm of the hipoisie.
Lennon's closest progenitor is probably Jonathan Richman, who can get a smile singing about rocking leprechauns and beat-up cars, mainly because he's so sincere. Lennon may not be quite as genuine -- at times, his lyrics are so tongue-in-cheek that you're amazed he can get them out -- but because his tone is so good-natured, even his most spirited swipes have the viciousness of a flower.
On the surface, Downtown is all about the world of rock stardom. But while Lennon name-checks Lenny Kravitz, John Cale, the Mekons, Bongwater, and the Dave Matthews Band (twice!), he's more interested in using the artists as a template than in taking the piss. With "Lenny Kravitz and Lisbon," Lennon employs a 12-foot billboard of Kravitz to take a swing at the ubiquity of American culture and the absurdity of a rock star in a button-down shirt. "Really Dave Matthews" is about Lennon's inability to make friends in college rather than about the inanity of the jam band artist (although the ridiculously catchy "Matthews Comes Alive" lampoons him rather mercilessly). Elsewhere, Lennon takes backstage bong hits from a Diet Coke can, enjoys a bout of unapologetic "gay fun," and dreams he's John Cale "fucked up on heroin and speed ... saying nasty things about Lou Reed."
In the past, Lennon showed a knack for taking the simplest of ingredients -- jangly, Smiths-like guitars, pillowy synths, the well-placed handclap -- and making them stick like Super Glue. On Downtown, he tailors the instrumentation to each song, applying country twang to "Mekons," dreamy cello to "John Cale," Parisian violin to "Jean-Michel," and a dopey sax riff to "Really Dave Matthews." Such careful composition and deadpan humor make Lennon a stranger in a music world built on brawn and cacophony. Still, as Lennon sings in "The Boston Music Scene," "They're making compilations that no one wants to hear/ They're dressing up in spacesuits and using lots of gear/ And when you meet them offstage they can be really mean/ But I have still not lost all faith in the Boston music scene." Thank God.