So this is a crazy-great concept, but also a crazy-challenging one: take an imaginary album, laid out track by track in a popular novel, and actually write it and record it. This is what Perry Serpa decided to do with the fictional album Juliet, from Nick Hornby’s popular and affecting book Juliet, Naked. The book involves a deep dive into music fandom, among other things, and centers around a reclusive singer/songwriter of Hornby’s invention named Tucker Crowe. Near the beginning of the novel, Hornby invents for us the Wikipedia entry for Crowe’s 1986 masterpiece, Juliet, which includes a track listing for the album. These are the songs that Serpa set about to write.
Not too intimidating a project, huh? Write music good enough to stand in for a fictional masterpiece? Plus there’s already been a movie made of the album, which came out earlier this year. (The movie, however, only created two of Juliet‘s ten songs.) “For better or for worse, I led a fifteen-plus piece band for almost twenty years, so I’m no neophyte when it comes to foolish, time-consuming, lofty creative pursuits,” Serpa told me via email. So here we go: “And You Are?” is the opening track on the imaginary album, so likewise opens Serpa’s. And what a wonderful, evocative piece of retro, semi-baroque folk rock it is. Seeking to create from scratch an album from 1986 gives Serpa all the artistic license he needs to willfully ignore that the 21st century ever happened to rock’n’roll; not always a bad thing, says me. Half Dylanesque harangue, half R.E.M.-like invocation, “And You Are?” swirls around an ascending string motif that adds a textured hook without taking away from the song’s electric edge; I especially like it when the guitar gains ground in the second half of the song, eventually mingling its own lead in and around the recurrent strings.
Not all the tracks from Juliet are specifically discussed in Hornby’s book, but some not only are described in one way or another, they are given a lyric or two. For instance, the first line of “And You Are?” was straight from the novel: “They told me talking to you would be like chewing barbed wire with a mouth ulcer.” The next line, however, is Serpa’s: “But you never once hurt me like that.” Serpa says this kind of writing was “fun as shit to do.”
The real album that Serpa has made based on Hornby’s imaginary one is, cleverly enough, entitled Wherefore Art Thou?: Songs Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. And it’s even cleverer than you might think; the imaginary Wikipedia entry mentions a 2002 tribute album to Juliet that was called, yes, Wherefore Art Thou?—which was not merely a Shakespeare allusion but a reference to the fact that in this fictional world, Tucker Crowe had disappeared after he released Juliet, and more or less hadn’t been heard from since. One final, meta twist relevant to Serpa’s project: Scott McCaughey, who sings lead on the song I have for you here, was founder of the Minus Five, one of the bands Hornby mentions as recording a song for the imaginary tribute LP.
For the record, Hornby himself has said, of Serpa’s smartly-hewn creation, “I’m happy to think that my book has somehow produced work this good.” Serpa has announced that a portion of the sales of the album will go to the UK-based charity Ambitious About Autism, which was co-founded by Hornby. Wherefore Art Thou? comes out October 5; streaming and purchase links are here.
photo credit: Margaret Gaspari