We Never Talk About the Past Anymore
148 · 27 November 97
Everclear: So Much for the Afterglow
"Is a CRX a good snow car?", my friend's husband wonders, as he drops her off at my office. A less auspicious evening is hard to imagine. New England winter, which seemed unfathomably remote when I left for London, has come crashing down in my absence, blasting the leaves from the trees and then raining on them, for good measure, so that the easy victory of raking them all up and stuffing them cheerily, autumnally, into orange plastic bags with leering jack-o-lantern grins on the outside, is no longer available. It is 6:30pm, the Friday night after my return. It is now obvious that I should have scheduled a day or two off, to recover from my vacation; days off are precious, yes, but so is my sanity. I came back on Monday afternoon, I played in a soccer game Monday night, I went back to work Tuesday, I wrote reviews Tuesday night, I went to another concert Wednesday night. What I did Thursday night I can't imagine, but it must not have been very restful, because here, Friday evening, I am perilously close to shutting down. I want nothing so much as to crawl blearily home, wrap myself in a blanket on my couch, put on a stack of warm, familiar records, and fall asleep ten minutes into the first one. The rest I get on this couch is a much higher grade than the rest I get anywhere else. It was my parents' couch, the good couch, when I was growing up, and I would never have been allowed to sleep on it. It sat, brightly, in our living room, reserved for company or Christmas morning or, though perhaps this last one was not in my parents' plan, my first real kiss. They switched furniture aesthetics the year I got out of college, though, and neither the couch's Swedish design nor its Greek-cotton upholstery fit with their new Shaker environs, so it became mine. The cotton is farther off white than it once was, but no less cool or soft, and I stopped growing just soon enough that it remains the perfect length. I can practically feel it against the backs of my arms, even now, as I stand by my car searching for the reserve of strength needed to scrape the ice off the windows. It has been sleeting for several hours, and is sleeting still. The parts I can see of the sky, the lower parts, where I can look without turning my face into the sleet, are a void. Hundreds of years of genetic programming argue for retreat. My couch whispers softly, from across the city, and I hear it like a cotton glacier sliding slowly over my head. A CRX is a terrible snow car, but it could get me home.
We aren't going home, though. I'm too tired to think, it's rush hour, the highways are covered with an inch of variegated, semi-solidified slush, and my wipers are batting at the ice on my windshield with a desultory hopelessness. So I am, of course, about to get on the worst commuter road in Boston and drive to Providence, Rhode Island, to see Everclear. It is my own fault, admittedly: I conflated two ticket agencies, and thus failed to get tickets for the show in Boston, the night before, before the sleet started. (The show at which three professional football players dove off the stage into the audience, sending a small, hapless woman to the hospital with a life-threatening spinal injury, Boston's answer to Altamont.) So, as penance, I'm driving to Providence. Providence, normally, is not very far away, but at 35 miles per hour it's a lot farther away than I'd like. This will be the fifth city I've seen Everclear in, the third long car pilgrimage seeing them has required. But there is no question of not going.
We make it to the show more or less on time, even with the side-trip to the world's most chaotic and wonderful sandwich shop, Geoff's, on the way (disconcertingly unchaotic at 9pm on a night when all right-thinking people are at home, and a little less wonderful as a result). Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel looks like an airplane hangar, not a hotel, and smells like an airplane hanger where customs has sequestered two smuggler's seaplanes, one full of damp, moldering marijuana and the other full of battery-operated humidifiers, for the past month. How many people have elbowed their way inside, I hesitate to suppose, but there is nowhere from which you can see the stage where we are not in physical contact with at least three of the nearest ones. I will have three major revelations before the night is over. The first revelation is that I am rapidly nearing the end of the phase of my life in which standing pressed in a crowd of sweaty college boys in baseball caps seems like a sensible way to experience live music. The third revelation is that I currently believe Everclear to be the best rock band in the world.
This is a stupid thing to say, of course, a bit of irremediably subjective critical presumption that is of no earthly use to anyone. "Best rock band in the world" is a contentless concept; there can no more be a best rock band than there can be a best sentence, or a best tree. The fact that a question is pointless, however, doesn't make it unanswerable. You have one, too, those of you who live musical lives as obsessive as mine, an unsolicited best-rock-band-in-the-world nomination of your own. It is a game we play, pinning "best" on things, a nominally grown-up version of the pinning games we played at birthday parties, blindfolded, when we were six (was it really within my lifetime that blindfolding a six-year-old, in a room full of them, and arming him with a pin, didn't seemed deranged?). Nobody, with the possible exception of the tailless donkey himself, cared what happened to the tail. The object of the game, which even the six-year-olds realize instinctively, I think, is to see who can humiliate themselves with the most grace. The best-rock-band game is not much different. Life, come to think of it, is not much different. The alliances you declare are reflections on yourself. When you pick a band, you stake yourself to a mythology.
When I say Everclear is the best rock band in the world, then, I am saying several things about what rock is, that they might fleetingly be its archetype. I am saying that guitars should howl like jet engines, that drums should be hit as hard, and frequently, as possible, that a bass is a percussion instrument, that singing and yelling are indistinguishable in the transport of passion, that the best anthems are songs of recovery, that pain is how you know you're touching life, that abandonment is the communal narrative of childhood. I am saying that rock is its own form of intoxication, that the blues do not do defiance justice, that pop is the component of joy in any noise. I am saying that rock is the music of uprising, and there is always higher to rise. More than anything, though, I realize, as the palpable sensation of imminent delirium courses through the hangar in the six seconds of caught breath before each new song, rock is the music that makes you want to jump up and down, forget that you ever knew what fear or diffidence felt like, and throw yourself into the infinite welcome of the mosh as if it expresses divine proof of human imperviousness and the tangibility of boundless love. I resist the pull, tonight, because I suspect my friend's husband will want her back in one piece, but this is what Everclear does better than any other band I know of. Aerosmith is better at glam strut, the Stones at ageless twelve-bar-blues equanimity, U2 at post-modern sensory bombardment, Guided by Voices at drunken and fragmented pop reverence. Marillion is more talented, the Manic Street Preachers more inspiring, Tori Amos more intense, Mecca Normal more riveting. There are a hundred bands, I'm sure, that do a hundred things better than Everclear does, and you have the right to hold up any of those hundred things as the Soul of Rock, and thus any of those hundred bands as the best rock band in the world. (And, of course, there are a hundred things other than Rock for bands to be the Soul of.) Tonight, though, emerging from a sleet storm at the end of a week that has drained away my capacity for coherence, what I need most desperately is a transfusion.
The second revelation I have tonight, which lends an element of petulance to the resignation of the first revelation, and a touch of bittersweetness to the rapture of the third, is that Everclear are no longer my own. I have seen them, now, six times, which for me is a lot, more times than I've seen any other band save the ones that my ex-girlfriend's brother was in while we were together. Even before tonight's show started, though, I knew that the other five belong to an era that has passed into history. I-knew-them-when one-upmanship is insufferable, I realize, and my Everclear seniority, as I was badgered by a friend into buying World of Noise only a few weeks before Sparkle and Fade came out, is not especially impressive, but for a while they were one of my bands, a band obscure enough that I could show up to see them open for Filter and be one of the few people there to see them. They would come out and meet people after their set, not to bask in fan glow, it seemed, but because touring is lonely, and a smiling, exhausted face to hold a conversation with might help them survive another night of it. Everclear was a collaborative effort, and we were part of it. The first time I heard "Santa Monica" on the radio, driving home from my abortive experiment in attempting to coach a kids' soccer team, I nearly crashed my car; I turned it up so loud that my speakers began accompanying the snare hits with ominous papery noises of their own, and drove through North Cambridge like Paul Revere, rousing the countryside for battle. I taped their first 120 Minutes appearance with the same giddy excitement that you clip articles about yourself out of your high school paper.
The band's moments of celebrity, however, turned out to be a trend. By the end of 1996, hearing "Santa Monica" on the radio was routine, and they were headlining their own shows. They played Saturday Night Live (where they were only allowed one song, bizarrely), made the late-show rounds, put out singles, made videos. Magazine articles poked through Art's personal life, and sat in judgment on him for knowing music-industry buzzwords. I could feel them starting to slip away. Not until they walked onto the Lupo's stage, however, and I heard the crowd roar -- not, in fact, until I saw in their eyes that they expected the crowd to roar -- did I understand that, somewhere along the way, they have become rock stars. They won't come out to meet people this tour, and if they did, they'd no longer remember my face. They have become big enough to sustain the entity of the band without my help, besieged enough to put up defenses where there was once need. Everclear's is hardly the first such transformation, but it's the one I've lived through the most personally. I miss them. I am proud of them, certainly, proud of their newfound confidence, proud of the professionalism I wasn't entirely sure they were capable of. But when Craig Montoya stands on an amp, instead of hiding behind his hair, when he exhorts the crowd in between songs, instead of gasping for breath while he waits for his life-or-death battle with his own bass to be rejoined, when Art insists on playing the last four measures of a song again so that Steven (Steven!) can hit the delay switch like he's supposed to, when an airplane hangar full of sweaty college boys in baseball caps sings along to "Strawberry" -- when I can no longer sustain the illusion that I am a participant in this experience, rather than merely an observer, a part of me feels like I've lost a friend.
Perhaps the strangest irony, though, is that despite this sense of loss, So Much for the Afterglow thrills me. Or maybe "despite" is wrong; often I build up such tangled personal associations with bands that I lose the ability to evaluate their records neutrally, but between the shift in my overall Everclear experience and the musical differences between this album and the first two, So Much for the Afterglow ends up, for me, being burdened by no connections at all. I adore it helplessly. It is one of those very rare albums where every end of a song leaves me with a desperate, hollow ache to play it again, but every beginning of the next song makes me forget the last one ever existed.
The break So Much for the Afterglow makes with World of Noise and Sparkle and Fade is immediate and unmistakable. The album-opening title track (whose text is half a portrait of relationship stasis and half a self-referential refusal to dwell on the past) begins with a buoyant a cappella round of airy Brian-Wilson harmony. You could probably start an album with a brief, sampled bit of this, and still revert to Sparkle and Fade's raw power-trio punk for the rest of the record, but this is real singing, not a sample, and it goes on for nearly forty seconds, too long to be mistaken for a casual whim. The band does explode into action, eventually, but the "Na na" backing vocals and impish handclaps on the chorus are miles from the acidic vitriol of "Heroin Girl" or "You Make Me Feel Like a Whore". Even the guitar tone, which on Sparkle and Fade was an unadorned head-jammed-into-speaker-cab squall, here gets processed into a metallic, overdriven, bigger-than-life crush. Montoya's bass sound gets a similar overhaul on "Everything to Everyone", acquiring a bright, springy shine. Greg Eklund alternates his usual manic thrash with a bit of martial stutter, Art's meter-straining lyrics skimming over the song's rhythm like he's surfing it. Slide guitar twang, an oscillating solo riff, sighing backing vocals and a chorus chant of "Come on, come on" borrowed verbatim, I could swear, from Jane Siberry's "Temple", give the song an unexpected composure, somewhere between the calm experience of the Stones and the ragged glory of Soul Asylum. Where most of the songs on Sparkle and Fade were underdog apologetics of one sort or another, "Everything to Everyone" turns around and holds its victimized narrator at least partially responsible for her victimization.
"Ataraxia (media intro)", the short third track, seems like the album's one misstep to me. It means to sound like a stiff, old-fashioned filmstrip narration, I think (and may be one), but the sing-song rhymes ruin the effect. It's there to make certain nobody misses the anti-anti-depressant topicality of "Normal Like You", but if the line "The Prozac doesn't do it for me anymore", in the first verse of the song itself, doesn't alert you to the subject, then you're probably too heavily sedated to make sense of the argument anyway. The backlash against Prozac and homogenized normality flirts with insensitivity ("Clinical depression is a disease", somebody is bound to point out), and it's easy for me to snipe from the safety of what, I guess, passes for mental health, but the Orwellian behavior-control overtones of modern psychiatry's eagerness to medicate depression are deeply disturbing to me, and it seems worth offending a few people who are at the mercy of lithium imbalances to make the larger social point. Neurosis and depression are the source not only of an enormous amount of powerful art, but of, I suspect, a large majority of the productive insights the human race has ever had. Lots of things depress me; the world is an ugly, petty, unjust, disheartening place, and that should depress you. Maybe Prozac could provide me with a perpetual dull bliss, but the philosophical distinction between medicated tranquillity and wireheading is subtle at best; if taking pills to make yourself cheerful seems like an okay idea to you, why would you turn down the opportunity for artificially-induced perpetual orgasm, once they work the technology out? Orgasms are pleasant enough, but I don't understand how someone could countenance wireheading and not consider just killing themselves immediately to be an optimization. Prozac is less extreme than wireheading, but the idea of taking medicine to make me defy my own nature is fundamentally abhorrent to me (which explains why alcohol and drug use perplex and revolt me, as well). I'm sure Prozac would make me, circularly, less intolerant of Prozac, but taking a drug to overcome unwillingness to take a drug is about the most starkly horrifying and soulless idea I've ever heard (which is why the first four pages of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are about the scariest thing I've ever read).
Bells, tambourine rustle and wheezy organ enliven "I Will Buy You a New Life", next, a sort of reexamination of Sparkle and Fade's "Summerland" to see what new resources can do to the problem. Having relied heavily on poverty and related social predicaments for his subject matter up until now, Art is left with an odd (if hardly original) dilemma now that he's made enough money singing about having been poor that he's not poor anymore. "I Will Buy You a New Life" doesn't try to be coy about it ("I hate those people who love to tell you / Money is the root of all that kills. / They have never been poor, / They have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas"), and the chorus' repetition of the title seems, initially, sincere, but "I know we will never look back", early in the song, turns into "I know we can never look back" by the end, and if money can change lives so easily, why does the narrator end up having to plead "Will you please let me stay the night?"
The point where I gave myself up to this album, completely, the very first time through, is "Father of Mine", just before we reach the midway point. I'd seen Art on his solo acoustic tour, and he played several new songs, but I couldn't tell, from the solo settings, whether I thought Everclear had another album in them or not. Art is not a sophisticated guitarist, and stripped down to acoustic form, many of his songs start to sound worryingly alike. Whatever the chords are to the song at hand, he almost invariably strums them the same cadence; in full band arrangements, especially with the sonic diversity of So Much for the Afterglow, this seems like a stabilizing factor to me, not a problem, but when that's all there is to a song, especially to a whole set of songs, it doesn't work as well. The more this bothered me, the more I tried to concentrate on his lyrics, instead, but the lyrics aren't the same without the band's musical power behind them, either. "Father of Mine" was the song he played that boded the most poorly for the next album, I thought. Abandoned-by-father was a far too predictable premise, like he was filling in one of the logical blanks in a matrix of generic troubled-childhood topics. The mood of the album version, however, is completely different. The guitar core is still pretty standard (much of it sounds like "I Will Buy You a New Life" sped up and pitch-shifted), but Eklund inserts a charming hi-hat/snare syncopation, and with amplification behind it the chorus' simple descending guitar riff makes a propulsive sense that it didn't, to me, in acoustic form. The repeated chorus line, "Daddy game me a name, / Then he walked away", which seemed like an uninspired complaint in the solo rendition, turns into an anthemic survival affirmation when the band howls it at the top of their lungs, a simultaneous declaration of independence and condemnation of the father's desertion. The song manages a delicate balancing act between how much the father's love meant to the child (demonizing him completely would have been much easier) and how much damage his departure did, and between bitter fury and the narrator's resolution not to repeat his father's mistakes with his own child. Watching a pulsing horde of sweaty college boys in baseball caps sing along to a song about how they're going to try to be good fathers almost convinced me that the world isn't essentially evil.
The embryonic syncopation from "Father of Mine" turns into a between-beats cowbell for "One Hit Wonder", on which Art backs away from the microphone and lets his voice stray into its gravely margins (where he sounds, at times, distinctly like Steven Tyler), and a few blasts of gleaming horns even creep into some of the later moments. The lyrics, which in most Everclear songs carry the music along with them through force of will as much as anything else, this time relax into the song's musical pace, making this one of the few Everclear songs that doesn't lend itself to moshing. "El Distorto de Melodica", however, the instrumental that follows, compensates for "One Hit Wonder"'s relative calm with a throbbing industrial buzz that I imagine owes at least a small debt to all those nights spent trying to talk over the din of Filter. "Amphetamine", the obvious sequel to "Heroin Girl", is almost as flat-out a sprint as Sparkle and Fade's "Nehalem", but the steady "White Men in Black Suits", despite a return to the familiar trope "I am just a boy / Working in a record store", seems to me to have some almost English-Beat-like slinkiness to it. Being reminded of the English Beat in the middle of an Everclear song is very strange, but nothing compared to how surprised I am when "Sunflowers" starts, next, and the hook from Big Country's "I'm Not Ashamed" leaps out of Art's guitar. I'm sure Big Country didn't invent this particular trill, either, but the choppy stop/start choruses of the two songs are nearly identical, as well. It suddenly occurs to me that this whole ringing, expansive album reminds me of Big Country's Why the Long Face. Half of me is thrilled by this, as Big Country are my favorite band, and the striking resemblance between the two albums supports my firm belief that Why the Long Face ought to have been a wild commercial success here, if only anybody had ever heard anything from it. The thrill quickly gives way to a black rage, though, when I realize that the millions of people who will buy this record still won't know that Big Country is alive and well and making records they'd probably like.
Country inflections run, subtly, through much of So Much for the Afterglow, but they surface blatantly in "Why I Don't Believe in God", where Art switches to banjo and mournful slide guitar. The text, a bookend for "Father of Mine" that traces another vein of family dysfunction back to the narrator's mother's nervous breakdown, which amounts to another abandonment, is dense with urban references that clash with the trebly country instrumentation, but the weary chorus finds some thematic common ground between retributive punk and campfire dirges. The song also, by slowing the album down, sets the stage for the finale, "Like a California King", which might have seemed sluggish next to "So Much for the Afterglow" or "Amphetamine". There's another Big Country riff in this one, and the twinkling mandolin has a Celtic flair to it, as well. The venomous lyrics are obviously about another band, so you can amuse yourself trying to figure out which one if you like, but the song seems to me more important as a sequel to World of Noise's similarly stubborn ode to self-esteem, "Loser Makes Good", in which case the specific identity of the other band is no more significant than the name of the college boy (presumably sweaty and baseball-cap-wearing) in the earlier song. "Like a California King" seems a bit too measured, however, to be the end of an Everclear album, so I'm not surprised to find one more bonus track lurking after the sadly inevitable minute of dead space. Why they wouldn't list this one, a fast, pounding, seasonal rant called, if the chorus is the title, "I Will Be Hating You for Christmas", I have no idea, but it restores the sense of ramming abruptly into a brick wall that is the way all great rock albums should end.
The end of the concert is similarly abrupt; the house lights come on almost before the band has managed to get off the stage, and the undertow of people spins us out a door into the streets of downtown Providence like an army of battling tops. The sleet has finally stopped. The roads home turn out to be empty and dry, as if the ordeal of the earlier journey was a critical part of the night's experience, while the return trip is just the credits running. Perhaps I've lost a band, but success is a terrible thing to begrudge anyone, and turning against a cult band after their breakthrough is one of underground culture's least attractive habits. Perhaps I've lost my tolerance for nightclubs, but club shows were always awful ways to hear music. It is time to move on. I need to sleep for about sixteen hours straight, and I badly need a shower. I need to go home and not drive or fly anywhere for a while. I need to buy some snow boots. I need to get this sodden layer of leaves off my patio somehow. There are real friends I need to telephone, books I need to read, closet doors I need to paint some less-repulsive color. If Prozac isn't going to be the mindless answer to everything I've yet to reconcile myself to, then I'll need to start thinking up better solutions. The couch is part of it, and the blanket, that much I think I've figured out. Bands, albums: these are tails with pins sticking out of the end. Clearly I'm going to need to find, somewhere, an awful lot of patient donkeys.