A Power Bigger than the Pain
21 · 20 June 95
Everclear: Sparkle and Fade
When Kurt Cobain killed himself last year, one thread of the narrative of American punk rock was cut abruptly short. Lines of horrific tension and weary rage suddenly ended, and those of us who had been following them hungrily, in the hopes that they might actually lead somewhere, were left abandoned in some psychological desert where the legions of superficially affiliated bands offered up by an opportunistic but uncomprehending music industry were painfully unsuited to serve as new guides. Nirvana's was a world whose moral calculus was a good deal more complex than that of any of the horde of earnest new-punk bands that have taken their runs at MTV and stardom in the months since, and it's been a while since I've come across anything that struck me as having the sort of emotional power that Nevermind pulsed with.
This void in my life is more painful than it might be, because I find, a little to my surprise, that I really can't listen to Nirvana any more. I don't usually invest much in rock stars as people, as opposed to in their music, so I didn't expect Kurt's suicide to affect my appreciation of his band's existing albums, but in practice I've found myself inexorably drawing away from all the Nirvana records, one by one. In Utero was the first to go, as I found it had become much too closely linked to Kurt's death in my mind. The Unplugged album I couldn't even buy, and I have to change stations when its songs come on the radio; the lost version of Kurt wandering through the MTV tracks seems to presage his suicide too profoundly. And by now the emotional block has spread backwards to include Incesticide, Nevermind and even Bleach. About the only thing I can still take is "Oh, the Guilt".
And so perhaps I wouldn't have reacted as strongly to Everclear if they didn't remind me so much of Nirvana, and so thus seem in a way to pick up that narrative and begin to spin it out again. Perhaps if Nirvana was still around, making records, Everclear would seem redundant to me, or derivative. I'm not saying this would be justified, I'm just saying it might have been my reaction. The superficial similarities, certainly, are striking. Everclear is a three-piece band from the Pacific Northwest; the guitarist/lead singer definitely appears to be the leader; the songs seethe with guitar noise, anger and hurt.
But Everclear is not Nirvana, and virtually all the apparent similarities disappear under close examination. Most obviously, Art Alexakis' lyrics possess little of the borderline incoherence of Cobain's. Nirvana's songs almost all meant something, but frequently the meaning had to be extricated with specially-made tools, in the hands of trained professionals. Most people couldn't even tell you what the words to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were before they heard Tori Amos' version, much less explain what, in a literal sense, they were supposed to express. Everclear's songs, by contrast, are models of exposition. A couple spins into Sparkle and Fade I bet even the most lyric-oblivious listener could probably identify "the one about the black girlfriend" and "the one about the girlfriend who overdoses on heroin". Some of the others yield their significances a little more reluctantly, but for most part they're written in English, and while I don't have any idea what the words "heartspark dollarsign" are supposed to mean, nor a very clear idea of why "perpetual Kathy" seems to upset Art so much, most of the rest of the album is patently coherent.
Musically, too, Everclear tends to be a bit more straightforward than Nirvana. Although looking at him on stage it was always hard for me to credit this, I think Kurt was a pretty remarkable guitar player, much more disciplined and capable than ever seemed in character. His songs tended to be arranged so that his guitar part often just dragged the rhythm section along in its wake. Everclear's arrangements seem much more balanced to me, and Alexakis' guitar playing seems much more in keeping with the mood of the lyrics, short on technique but long on drive. Most of these songs are based around relatively simple bar-chord riffs, played fast and heavily distorted. The progressions avoid three-chord Green Day pop stereotypes, but this is still music I can imagine being able to play while singing at the same time.
The real thing that differentiates Everclear from Nirvana in my mind, though, is what the two bands make me feel. Nirvana, even back in Nevermind days, found their niche giving voice to existential exhaustion and nihilistic despair. They expressed a roiling undercurrent of abuse-scarred childhoods and social claustrophobia, and gave voice to formerly-silent suffering, but beyond "we feel this, too", they didn't have a lot of hope to hold out. Cobain's suicide was, to me, an affecting gesture precisely because of the ultimate hopelessness it represented. It seemed to say "I feel the same pain you do, and I have to report that even making a million dollars as a rock singer doesn't dull it at all." Rock has taken a lot of lives, but I don't think anybody else went out with such a ringing vote of no confidence in existence. And so when I realize that Everclear has stepped partially into Nirvana's vacated role in life, picked up the threads of painful lives confronted in music, and started to draw them forward again, this time with real feelings of hope and potential in defiance, a mental restraining wall I erected around last April finally caves in, and this amazing outpouring of feeling surges free in me, destroying a shoddily constructed miniature village like the ones Godzilla was always stomping through. Everclear resuscitates survival as a viable response to pain.
And in doing so, not insignificantly, they have made what, at least this week, I think I consider one of the best American rock albums in quite a while. World of Noise, their 1993 debut, was nothing to be ashamed of, but Sparkle and Fade reaches another level entirely for me. It begins with the strangled screams and caterwauling guitar of "Electra Made Me Blind", a song that originally appeared as a b-side on the single for "Nervous and Weird". Comparing the two versions provides a neat encapsulation of the impressive maturation Everclear has gone through during the space between albums. The stuttering drums that underpin Alexakis' insistent "I know" chorus give it a propulsive energy that teeters on the edge of disintegration.
Any idea that the band isn't in control of the proceedings is quickly dispelled, though, as they slam into the brutal "Heroin Girl", driven by an insistent cycling four-chord guitar part. When the second verse hits "I heard a policeman say 'Just another overdose'", the anger at having a personal crisis turned into a easily-dismissed statistic is palpable, and frightening. Few stories are simple, and the frequency of a tragedy shouldn't be allowed to deprive any individual incident of its humanity. From this catharsis, "You Make Me Feel Like a Whore" actually retreats a little, settling into a slower guitar cycle. The pace gets stepped down another notch for the opening of "Santa Monica", but picks up again as the band launches into its perfect chorus. Little touches of country-ish vocal harmonies creep in, and help transform a song whose repeated tagline is "watch the world die" into, somehow, a hopeful one.
"Summerland", the next song, boosts hope even further, as a name on a map provides the impetus for the narrator to realize that his life has become becalmed, and to start to think about trying to change it. "I think I lost my smile. / I think you lost yours, too. / We have lost the power to make each other laugh. / Let's just leave this place". The implication that there once was the power, and that there may be steps taken to reclaim it, is enough to animate the song's bleak present, so that when the lyrics reach the album's title, "Sparkle and Fade" seems to take on an enormous symbolic significance, as if the antidote to the omnipresent murk of life isn't big blazing beacons of hope, or total darkness, but rather a million tiny sparks of resilience, sort of an unpatronizing reverse version of George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light", in which everybody is a source of light.
This is a good image to keep in mind (the sparks, not George Bush), as "Strawberry", next, is pretty bleak. A haunting portrayal of the precariousness with which a partially-reformed drug user resists the temptations to relapse, its chorus "Don't fall down now, / You will never get up" captures the apparent banality of the danger, which is precisely what makes it so frightening. We escape from it, though, and launch into the anthemic grandeur of "Heartspark Dollarsign", which is "the one about the black girlfriend". Its anti-racist stand is a pretty easy one to take, but rather than simply milk it for political credibility, Everclear use it to get to the arresting exhortation "You're possessed with a power / Bigger than the pain", which puts the onus of effort back on the listener, and thus turns the song from a safe PC criticism of bigotry into a surprisingly serene reminder of individual responsibility (which isn't exactly in fashion currently).
If the album ended there, after seven songs, it would already be a classic. Incredibly, though, it's only halfway through. "The Twistinside" finds the narrator tiring of a drunken, bloodshot life, and wondering whether it's time to grow up. A vicious instrumental duel between Alexakis and bassist Craig Montoya toward the end provides an interesting metaphorical embodiment of the competing desires for "freedom" and "maturity" (or else it just sounds really cool). "Her Brand New Skin" is the one about "perpetual Kathy", and is easily the bounciest, happiest sounding song on the album. The band's obsession with physical places as psychological traps continues with "Nehalem", a sprinting and somewhat repetitive expression of disbelief that anybody could actually escape the small town.
"Queen of the Air", eleventh, is a surprisingly involved story about realizing that the narrator's mother killed herself when he was three, and that his family has been lying to him about it ever since. I think this may be the first appearance of this particular narrative in the rock canon, though probably there'll be a rash of them now. "Pale Green Stars" is an oddly sentimental song about the pain of having to leave a young daughter to go on tour; this, too, may be a new entry in the lists. The band then seems to realize that they've gone maudlin for two songs in a row, and to compensate they crash into "Chemical Smile", another worried friend-on-drugs song, and then end with the relatively sedate small-town-as-prison song "My Sexual Life". It's not actually as rousing an ending as I think this album deserves. I find myself starting it over so as not to end on such an anticlimax. But once it's playing again, I can't even think about turning it off until "Nehalem", at the earliest. I wonder if they planned it this way?
Soul Asylum: Let Your Dim Light Shine
The pressure on Soul Asylum, resulting from "Runaway Train" having catapulted them from seemingly-eternal obscurity to Number One Single fame, is precisely the sort of thing (hell, forget "sort", it was the thing) that killed Kurt Cobain, and one could easily imagine any number of reactions Soul Asylum might have had to the situation.
What you might not have expected, though, is that Soul Asylum could somehow apparently manage to filter out all the hype, pressure and celebrity entirely, and after an extended delay for touring all corners of the known world, make a successor to Grave Dancers Union that carries on their ongoing musical evolution as if no outside forces were involved at all. After all, for all that some curmudgeonly old-guard purists gamely tried to work up an indignant lather complaining about "Runaway Train", Soul Asylum's commercial breakthrough was actually an eminently logical extrapolation of a clear line drawn by their previous five albums. Folk and country influences had been infusing their sound, steadily informing their original hardcore energy, for quite some time, and "Runaway Train" was simply a moment in which their habitual shuffle of ingredients left one song with all the pop-folk grace and none of the punk noise, just as some other songs on Grave Dancers Union came out with the opposite blend. So musically, there was really little need to be apprehensive about this album, and the real question I had was whether chart-blinded label execs would try to meddle with the band's own good sense.
Let Your Dim Light Shine announces its intact arrival emphatically, with the opening track and first single, "Misery". A mixture of gentle picking and churning guitar chords, the anthemic chorus trading moods with the pristine semi-falsetto "Frustrated, Incorporated", "Misery" seems to me to do an admirable job of combining the energy of "Somebody to Shove" and the grace of "Runaway Train", and coming up with something beyond either. If this song doesn't make my year-end Top Ten somewhere, I think I will be very surprised.
To me the album recommends itself on at least two levels. First, Soul Asylum have an uncanny knack for album pacing, and for records that produce a stronger overall effect than simply walking through the individual songs might lead you to expect. The careful mixture of cacophony and calm on this album produces both a wide spectrum of moods, and an impeccable overall balance. The montage of styles on just the song "Caged Rat" shows a wider range than most bands ever achieve, even ones that don't begin life barely able to operate their gear. This album also does, in my opinion, a slightly better job than Grave Dancers Union in distributing the musical elements over the course of the album, so that virtually no songs end up one dimensional, even in isolation.
Secondly, on an individual song level, Soul Asylum's best moments thrill me like few other bands'. I don't know what, or how many, singles they'll try to make out of this album, but I have five nominees, any one of which I'd be willing to be locked in a Gap with for three weeks. "Misery" is the first. The second is "String of Pearls", a rousing epic about two-headed presidents, divorces, funerals, prostitutes, priests, pearls and everything else American. It's a beautiful rock song, with soaring background vocals, simmering organ, tasteful wah-wah guitar work, and abundant reminders that Dave Pirner has developed from a hoarse screamer to a remarkably capable and appealing singer, and kind of cool lyricist if you don't mind the prevalence of corny rhymes. "Eyes of a Child" is slower and sadder, with some nice cello. It leads into the charged "Just Like Anyone", which has to be the best evocation of existential angst striking during a visit to a cold outhouse that I've ever heard, in any medium. After the couplet "She spins and pulls her pants down, / The cold air holds her like a thief", I don't think my outhouse visits will ever be quite the same again (though, being something of an outdoors-averse urbanite, my outhouse encounters are rather infrequent). This, in turn, leads into "Tell Me When", a mid-tempo number with a marvelous reverse-reverbed guitar (I think that's what it is) hook.
Soul Asylum, in fact, makes me very happy in just about every way. If Everclear takes Nirvana's awareness of pain and starts to turn it into reasons for optimism, Soul Asylum seems to go one step further and transcend the pain entirely. Nirvana turned its back on the pain, and Everclear faces it, but Soul Asylum just walk right through it, as if they've grown so accustomed to it that it no longer holds any power over them. They're willing to launch into a good angry fight when they feel like it, but no more frequently. There's something staunchly Middle American about this imperturbable self-confidence, something that locates Soul Asylum squarely between visceral West Coast vitriol and calculated East Coast determination. Though this undoubtably sounds pretentious, I would maintain that at this point Soul Asylum may be the one working band who best represent the whole of the current state of American rock music, and in whose music the whirl of influences that surround them are most uncontrivedly evident.
Now, who was it that said "Nice Guys (Don't Get Paid)"?
Fugazi: Red Medicine
After the joy of discovering Everclear, and the satisfaction of a Soul Asylum album I like every bit as much as I'd hoped to, it's almost too much that there's a new Fugazi album, as well. My enthusiastic advocacy of the other two bands aside, Fugazi is by far the coolest band in the world. This point, I realize, is made in virtually every article about the band. What often gets lost amidst the details of their concert policies and total industry independence, though, is the fact that, musically speaking, they're determinedly abstruse and commercially inaccessible, and have gotten more so with every album. As much as you might want to support a band who make major labels and many record stores look ridiculous by printing "this cd $8 post paid" on the back of all their discs, these are actually not the details that make Fugazi most interesting, and it's not impossible that you'll find the music itself rather unpleasant.
For not only are Fugazi the world's coolest band, they're also practically a genre unto themselves. Their style has been evolving steadily from album to album over the past seven years, but with virtually no reference to the rest of the musical world, so by this point even the two most dissimilar of their albums are so much more like each other than like anything else that on one level it's almost superfluous to review a new Fugazi album, other than to say that it exists.
But at least briefly, I'll pretend it isn't. Red Medicine is, actually, a little more different from its predecessors than I expected. I liked Steady Diet of Nothing and In on the Kill Taker quite a bit, but to me both albums still sat at least partially in the shade of Repeater, which remains the album on which I think Fugazi first really established the richness of their own particularly minimalist musical cosmos. Red Medicine is the first album since then that seems to me, in places, to push on the boundaries of Repeater's universe, rather than simply exploring territory within it. The production here seems even more careful than on prior records, with specific noises rendered in especially vivid detail. "Do You Like Me" and "Birthday Pony" both open with near-ambient/industrial introductions. "Fell, Destroyed" sounds like a troop of desultory robots covering a Crime and the City Solution song on low battery power. The instrumental "Version" sounds like a warped industrial art-school reassembly of some incidental Pink Panther music. The most conventional song, ironically, is the one featuring the line "I realize that I hate the sound of guitars", the anti-generation-marketing diatribe "Target".
Of course, there are still plenty of trademark Fugazi traits. The drums still have that booming recorded-in-a-very-big-cardboard-box dryness to them, the guitars still saw at each other in strangely discordant configurations, and the whole band has enthusiastically adopted Ian MacKaye's vocal tendency to hit notes by shouting at some higher pitch, and then dropping into the note in question like an over-optimistic penguin leaping off of a low shrub. The lyrics are still hard to follow, but reveal interestingly fragmented commentaries once you take the trouble to follow along on the liner (except that "Long Distance Runner" seems to just be about running, which seems uncharacteristically literal). And the credits still obstinately refuse to itemize the roles of individual members in any way.
There are moments on this album that could pass for King Crimson, guitar squalls that Adrian Belew would be perfectly at home with. It fascinates me to watch how the outlying factions of progressive rock and straightedge punk, originally polar opposite genres, have nearly converged. By building up their sonic vocabulary from the stark minimalism of 13 Songs, the band has reached a complexity level comparable to the one that some of the maximalists have now reached in the opposite direction. Fugazi, the champions of sweaty mosh-inducing pandemonium, have now made an album that in a few places reminds me more of the studio-processed solipsism of Aphex Twin than it makes me think of the snarling abandon of the Sex Pistols.
In the end, though, I'm not entirely sure how much I like this album. The stranger moments on it just make me want the whole thing to be even stranger. I wish Fugazi would make an totally ambient album, or a giddy pop album, or go a cappella, or something -- anything -- not instantly and undeniably identifiable as another Fugazi record. It's not that the world is overburdened with Fugazi-style music, by any means, but I've begun to wonder how much more of this I have any use for. It's not surprising enough, any more; it's no longer that challenging, either for them to play or for me to hear. I've heard them do this, and now I want to hear what happens when they try something else.
I'd even pay $15.99 for it.