A lot of people writing about New England folkie Cheryl Wheeler mention two distinct personalities. There’s “poet-Cheryl,” as one music writer dubs her, the one who writes beautiful ballads like “Northern Girl” and “Arrow.” And then there’s her wickedly funny doppelganger, “comic-Cheryl,” poking gentle fun at herself even as she lets this crazy-assed society of ours have it with both barrels.
But I submit that this two-Cheryl system doesn’t begin to describe the breadth of her lyrical abilities. To really do that, you’d need a Hall of Justice’s worth of songwriting superheroines, each with one special power to get the job done. There’s “Romantic Solipsist-Cheryl,” whose incredible powers of ignoring everything but the lonely whale-songs of her aching heart make her a tough one for small talk around the Hall of Justice water cooler. All of her songs begin with “I” or “My.” She’s pretty intense in her introspection.
Then there’s “Mirror-Cheryl,” whose special reflective powers help her avoid detection (when she wants to) by making you think you’re looking at and hearing yourself when she sings to you. “Osmosis-Cheryl” got hit with a falling radioactive brick as a young busker on the streets of Providence. Clear of voice and pure of intention, she can now walk through any wall she likes, even the walls around your heart, to get to you and comfort you when you feel alone and bricked-in by everything.
“Sound of Music-Cheryl” was nurtured in the wild by a family of kindly record players before going to work as a governess for the children of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Which might explain why the song she wrote for 2002’s Different Stripe, “Gandhi/Buddha,” cleverly reprises the what-did-I-do-to-get-so-lucky sentiment of “I Must Have Done Something Good” from her namesake 1965 musical. “I must’ve been Gandhi or Buddha or someone like that,” she sings. “I must’ve saved lives by the hundreds everywhere I went/I must’ve brought rest to the restless and fed the hungry, too/I must have done something great to get to have you.”
“Robert Frost-Cheryl,” a subspecies of “Poet-Cheryl,” is my favorite, the new birdsong voice of New England lyricism. Here is what she has to say: “When the fall comes to New England/The sun slants in so fine/And the air’s so clear you can almost hear/The grapes grow on the vine/The nights are sharp with starlight/And the days are cool and clean/And in the blue sky overhead/The northern geese fly south instead/And the leaves are Irish Setter red/When fall comes to New England.”