Friday, January 18, 2008

Everclear - Sparkle and Fade/So Much for the Afterglow

Everclear - Sparkle and Fade/So Much for the Afterglow
by Jonathan Bradley




Everclear’s “Loser Makes Good” isn’t just a song; it’s a summary of frontman Art Alexakis’ entire ethos. For most artists, a limited repertoire is a crippling hindrance; for Everclear, nearly everything that ever made them worth listening to derived from those three words. And the “makes good” part was often barely necessary.

Everclear was an anomaly of the second-wave grunge acts who retained the punkish simplicity of the genre’s standard bearers, but rarely possessed their melodic acumen or forceful presence. With Sparkle and Fade released the year after Sixteen Stone, by that touchstone of alt-mediocrity, Bush, Everclear was not optimally positioned for critics to welcome them or for pop-historians to remember them. They deserve better; Alexakis colored his fiery riffing with a distinct country edge, and his lyrics were vivid and delivered in a weary, commanding voice. So Much for the Afterglow actually improved it; the band experimented with innovations that mostly worked, such as the harmonies on the title track, the siren-like guitar hook of “Everything to Everyone” or the rustic sparseness of “Why I Don’t Believe in God.” Failures like the unnecessary (yet inexplicably Grammy-nominated!) instrumental “El Distorto De Melodica” were rare.

Over the two nearly stellar albums that bookend the band’s golden years, the 1995 breakthrough Sparkle and Fade and 1997’s So Much for the Afterglow, Alexakis devoted himself to depicting a parade of lovable junkies, no-hopers and fuck-ups; societal outsiders who found comfort in substance abuse and each other. A large number left unspecified troubles back home to find a new life and new troubles on the West Coast. There’s the “loser-geek, crazy with an evil streak” of “White Men in Black Suits” who moved to San Francisco to work in a record store and hook up with a stripper, or Amy of “Amphetamine” (her designated moniker) who “looks like a teenage anthem,” but can’t find happiness in pills or Pacific states. To say that Alexakis romanticized these characters and glorified their lifestyles isn’t a criticism; his pulpy, luridly exploitive treatment is exactly why these albums are so enjoyable.

The band’s songs from this period, even the ones that end in tragedy, are far from cautionary. The single “Heroin Girl” is probably the most grim of these albums’ tracks — the titular character dies of an overdose two thirds of the way through the song — but even this grisly theme is ameliorated by the joy in the characters’ lifestyle: “I’m happy in hell with my heroin girl,” Alexakis growls. And why not, when life in “hell” is described by the lines, “We drink that Mexican beer, we live on Mexican food.” Alexakis doesn’t underplay his companion’s death, but his narratives shift quickly to outrage at the callous indifference of the local law enforcement rolling their eyes at “just another overdose.” Less dramatic, but equally mesmerizing, “Strawberry” is a relapse narrative sweetly sung over a lone, undistorted guitar. “Ten long years in a straight life,” Alexakis sings. “They fall like water/Yes, I guess I fucked up again.” It’s a sad tale, but the insouciant disintegration of Alexakis and a cohort who proffers “a couple of bags down in Old Town,” accompanied by a sweet guitar lapping around his words makes the failure sound like the most inviting thing in the world. Sparkle and Fade and So Much for the Afterglow are trap-hop at the other end, frontline reporting from the addicts rather than the dealers, and Alexakis’ own history of substance abuse lent authenticity to his narratives. The thrill isn’t the stories his characters tell, it’s getting the front row seat to the drama going down.

Alexakis’ losers dreamed of making good, and often the dream was enough. “Santa Monica,” another fantasy of West Coast renewal, expressed just enough hope in the ambition to “live beside the ocean” and “watch the world die” to make the song sound optimistic. When the dreams weren’t achievable, Alexakis could fall back on that ability to make self-destruction sound seductive. It’s hard to believe him when he sings that he “doesn’t want to die with you,” just after admitting “I like to let the arms of a bar wrap around me tight,” and making it sound like the most beautiful thing in the world. “Man, we got to grow up,” he insists, but the churning guitar makes giving up sound much more inviting. Such is the dominance of this aesthetic in the band’s work that even the songs about nothing more than romantic disintegration contain the suggestion the characters have other problems afflicting their relationships. The couple falling apart in “So Much for the Afterglow” could be separating for any reason, but alongside songs about poverty and addiction, it seems perfectly reasonable that this couple, like others on the record, is being pulled apart by substance abuse.

Unfortunately, as good as the band was at this stage, they couldn’t quite produce a perfect album. Sparkle and Fade has a few anonymous pop-punk tracks cluttering up its second half, but worse, it has “Pale Green Stars.” A hint at the mawkish depths Everclear would plumb later, the song is a manipulative account of a divorce with a child at its center that makes Blink-182’s “Stay Together for the Kids” sound sophisticated. “It’s hard on a young girl/She thinks it’s all her fault,” is maudlin enough, but seems particularly sensational following Alexakis’ contrived portrayal of her innocence, describing a “scared little girl watching Aladdin on TV.” Even worse is the allusion to pubescent menstrual cycles (or perhaps teenage pregnancy) suggested by “It’s hard on a young girl when the blood won’t come when it ought to come.” Coupled with some pathetic pleading to the girl’s mother (“Amanda always cries when you yell at me/please don’t yell at me,”) the song is a thorough disaster from beginning to end. That it immediately follows “Queen of the Air,” a tawdry, rather than compelling, family drama, makes this section of the album particularly rocky.

Alexakis must have recognized that he could not mine heroin chic indefinitely, but other than enthusiastically sneering putdowns like “Local God,” from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack and “Everything to Everyone,” he seemed to have little idea as to how to effectively expand his palette. His penchant for sentimentality was kept mostly in check on these earlier records, though “Father of Mine,” from So Much for the Afterglow is another misstep, too self-pitying to succeed as the screed it wants to be, undermined by simple moralizing.

By 2000, when the band released the nauseating single “Wonderful,” a sappy and manipulative soliloquy sung from the perspective of yet another child of divorce, anything interesting about Everclear had evaporated entirely. Alexakis announced his optimism with the awfully titled Songs from an American Movie: Learning How to Smile, but failed to discuss domesticity in the engaging manner with which his debaucheries were once detailed.

Of this decade, probably the only Everclear song worth mentioning is “Volvo Driving Soccer Mom,” a petty but amusing diatribe against “blond, bland, middle class Republican[s]” living in the suburbs. This excursion to the red states had potential, but Alexakis made no attempt to understand the characters he sang about, and so the song was little more than a humorous sneer. In the ‘90s, he allowed the strippers and junkies more nuance.

Unfortunately, that rare latter-day highlight demonstrates why the band couldn’t take that next step. When Alexakis ran out of losers trying to make good, he suddenly found he had very little to say.

Jonathan Bradley has written for Stylus Magazine, Lost at Sea, Volume Magazine and the Western Front, and rules over his own miniature Internet fiefdom, the Screw Rock 'n' Roll blog. Although it's not widely known, he is Australia's best music critic.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome.

March 22, 2009 at 6:31 PM  

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