The Infinite Jukebox: Shawn Colvin’s ‘You and the Mona Lisa’


I could, if I wished, fill practically every slot on the Infinite Jukebox, if it were not Infinite, with Shawn Colvin, and on the version that’s in my head, practically all of them are there to be recalled, relived and loved. It’s amazing to me that it’s been nearly thirty years since I was introduced to her voice and her songwriting via a tape from a might-have-been girlfriend on which it was the filler to k.d.laing’s Ingenue.
But no matter how much you love an artist’s works, there are always the ones that rise up above the crowd, the songs that are extra special, that are the most beautiful, most moving and most important. The ones that, no matter the standard, are better than the rest.
‘You and the Mona Lisa’ came from Colvin’s fourth album, A Few Small Repairs, released in 1996. We’re talking the commercial peak of Colvin’s career here: the lead single, ‘Sunny Came Home’, was a top 10 hit in America and even gave Colvin her biggest success over here, a highest ever placing of no. 27 as a Top 40 New Entry.
‘Sunny Came Home’ got me in some unexpected bother at work. I was in the last year of a five year contract at a firm I’d long since come to loathe, counting the days with all but religious fervour. The firm’s main office was in North Manchester, with satellite offices in some of the surrounding towns. An assistant Solicitor at Heywood, the one office I’d not then so much as visited, was leaving for a better job, and I was tapped to sub for her. Each day, I’d call in head office for post and anything else requiring delivery before driving up to Heywood – a very pleasant, mainly country route for the rest of the day. Working from Heywood helped keep me sane.
Though that office was under the control of a partner, the day to day running was by a senior secretary with definite views. Early on, I got quizzed about various things, including my tastes in music. I can still recall the response to mentioning Shawn Colvin: ‘Never heard of him.’ ‘Actually, he’s a she. She’s a bit of a cult singer from America, but I think her work is very good.’ ‘Huh.’
And then, about ten days later, I’d no sooner arrived for the day and she said, ‘I heard that Shawn Colvin of yours on the radio this morning.’ (This was when ‘Sunny Came Home’ was current). ‘Oh?’ I said, interested in her reaction. ‘She was bloody rubbish!’ ‘Oh, right,’ with a bit of a shrug. ‘Everyone else I’ve played her to has liked her.’
That, as far as I was concerned, was that. It’s been a very long time since I was last fazed by someone liking different music to me. But it wasn’t that to my colleague. About a fortnight later, the subject of Diana Ross came up. She was playing Manchester. She was her husband’s favourite artist. She was getting tickets for them to see her. What did I think of Diana Ross?
Now a truthful answer would have, and still would be, uncomplimentary about everything but a handful of post Supremes tracks, and nothing more recent than ‘Chain Reaction’ but there was no point in being offensive, so I limited myself to saying, ‘She’s not my kind of music, actually.’ ‘She’s better than Shawn Colvin!’ I should have expected that.
From that point, it was on. At every possible opportunity, she was there, denigrating Colvin. I took it on the chin. There was no point in responding. I could have pointed out that I had heard considerably more Diana Ross, over a much longer period, in coming to my opinion and she’d heard one song once but it wasn’t worth it. The only time I did answer back was when she said I wouldn’t play Shawn Colvin at a party, to which I agreed, but I couldn’t resist adding that I wouldn’t play Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony either, which actually had the effect of shutting her up. For a while.
All of this was during the time A Few Small Repairs was out. I was playing it at home, but more importantly, I’d put it on tape and was playing it in the car. Driving to Heywood, driving home, driving on the runs I had to make to Council offices, other Solicitors, our Bury office, the album was my near constant companion, as I learned to understand it as a comprehensive piece of music, its tracks all in order.
The fourth of these was ‘You and the Mona Lisa’, a gentle, mid-tempo, almost jogging melody. The title caught my ear before I heard the words and I loved the words. It was a love song, but a love song with an angle, a song about someone with whom Colvin was in a relationship that her wiser self was telling her to leave (I should walk away right now). She was the one who would always do the heavy lifting, and unspokenly she asked why she should.
But that chorus would bounce in, singing that she loved him the most, always giving up the ghost, in his own private conversations. He’s a sweet mystery and there’s nothing in between you and the Mona Lisa.
And what is the world’s most famous painting famous for? It’s enigmatic smile, that soft curl of the lips, hiding forever what Mona Lisa is thinking, and whether her amusement is genuine or ironic.
And then would come the lines that I fixated on, for what I saw them as saying, nothing in particular and everything in between: this is what you mean to me. That said everything, more than anything a song could explain, the forever inexplicability of love and desire.
So many times I would sing softly along with that song then, rather than let the tape roll on to the track ‘Trouble’, I would wind it back to singalong again to the song that meant most to me in the album. And the best of it was that I was not cleaving to this album out of any need of escape from what was, however mild, workplace bullying, but simply because I loved it with all my heart.
Years later, seeing Colvin live for the first time, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, she followed the first few songs by asking for suggestions from the audience: I was in right away with a call for ‘You and the Mona Lisa’, which she played superbly. At the end, in the instant before the applause began, I called out ‘Thank you’ and she replied ‘You’re welcome’.
So long after, this is still one of my ten favourite Colvin songs (most but not all of the rest come from Fat City), and it’s got a heck of a lot of memories associated with it.

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