When Everclear’s album Sparkle and Fade charted during 1995’s Indian summer of grunge, you could almost hear the alternative-nation cognoscenti heaving a collective sigh of relief: They’d finally found their Steve Miller. With his band providing the requisite thrash and burn, Art Alexakis, the group’s ringleader, supplied the big hooks and insistent riffs. The lyrics were appropriately dark and self-absorbed, frequently training a voyeuristic eye for detail back on the singer’s own shabby childhood. A post-Kurt rocker with El Lay leanings, Alexakis found the sweet spot between “Jungle Love” ephemera and Nevermind angst and promptly proceeded to milk it for all it was worth.

Which, as it turned out, wasn’t all that much. But if the aptly titled Sparkle and Fade was no Book of Dreams (and it wasn’t), maybe that’s because Alexakis & Co. had decided to take the money and run, saving their more potent stuff for the follow-up, 1997’s So Much for the Afterglow. That album made Alexakis the star he’d always wanted to be, spinning off enough “modern-rock” tracks to keep Everclear on the radio for the duration of the group’s three-year recording hiatus. But hook-laden and anthemic though they are, most of Afterglow’s songs are feel-bad hits, telling Alexakis’ fractured life story as filtered through a few years of therapy.

That story, if lyrics and press bios are to be believed, goes something like this: Relatively normal kid in gritty Santa Monica neighborhood grows up admiring his absentee father while coming to resent his partially cracked mother, “a scared woman in a private hell” with a “hushed voice like electric bells,” as one song puts it. After years of drug abuse, petty crime, and watching friends die, Alexakis kicks his coke habit, falls in love, gets married (and divorced) twice, and, along the way, tops it all off by having a daughter. This occasion—surprise, surprise—causes the singer to realize what a lousy father his own dad was. Therapy and fatherhood suit Alexakis well, though, giving him enough perspective on his upbringing to produce a song as pissed-off and sad as Afterglow’s “Father of Mine”: “My dad he gave me a name,” goes that song’s sweeping, Wholike chorus. “Then he walked away.”

Too earnest? Maybe. Alexakis’ whole career begs you to give him the benefit of the doubt even as it raises certain nagging questions. Is he an incisive songwriter with a gift for melody or, at 38, just a careerist posing opportunistically as a post-punk punk? Is he a boring therapy zealot or an actual survivor with insight to share? Sure, he name-checks John Prine and Otis Redding in his songs now, but isn’t he really a closet Knack fan? And oh, by the way, have you ever seen Alexakis and that guy from the Offspring in the same room at the same time? Inquiring minds want to know!

As of now, the verdict is still out. The new album doesn’t quite recapture the manic energy or guitar crunch of Afterglow, but that’s apparently on purpose. Originally conceived as a solo record, Songs From an American Movie: Volume 1: Learning How to Smile seems designed to showcase Alexakis’ considerable skills as a high-caliber pop songwriter and a genuine studio obsessive. The album, which Alexakis also produced, serves up a bright, radio-friendly soundscape, featuring horns, string sections, and, on one track, a Public Enemy sample lifted from “Bring the Noise.” The sample appears on the great “Here We Go Again,” the propulsive follow-up to the California-style acoustica of the album’s opening track, “Song From an American Movie Pt. I.” That one-two punch sets up the record’s duplicity. If with the one hand Alexakis pats you on the head, with the other, he slaps you silly.

“Here We Go Again” transplants the chunka-chunka guitar figure from Sparkle and Fade’s “Santa Monica” to Stevie Wonder-style syncopated funk, a new direction that the band heads toward with more charm than, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As the rhythm section percolates in the manner of “Sir Duke,” Alexakis charts the fault line between his current and former selves, chronicling one-half of a dialogue between the singer and his lover. “I do not want you to know me/The way I used to be,” Alexakis chants in the hiphop cadence he sometimes favors. “All these good things we have/Would not mean a damn to me.” The country-rock “Thrift Store Chair” tells a similar story, but this time from a state of domestic discord: “You can walk all over me tomorrow/But tonight can’t we both just pretend to sleep?”

Crafty as he is, Alexakis’ radio-pop sympathies occasionally fail him. The new record’s overblown take on “Brown Eyed Girl” is an example, the swelling, synth-drenched arrangement owing more to the Hooters than to Van Morrison. The well-meaning “Unemployed Boyfriend” likewise overheats. The lyrics’ litany of things Alexakis will never do (“make out with your girlfriends when I know you’re not around,” for instance) gets lost in the bombast of soaring guitars and histrionic vocalizing.

Much more convincing is Everclear’s head-bobbing homage to “AM Radio,” a song that showcases Alexakis’ gift for the tossed-off, casually realistic detail that lifts a song out of abstraction and into your living room. Alternating between a verse of overdriven, Memphis-style soul and a bouncing, frenetic chorus, the song tracks the singer’s ’70s childhood, taking snapshots of Alexakis in his “sister’s Pinto/Cruisin’ with the windows rolled down”; later, he gets “busted getting high/In the back of my friend’s van.” 1977, though, was apparently a very good year: The future punk “saw the Led Zeppelin,” got a guitar for Christmas, and had a dream that “Jimmy Page/Would come to Santa Monica/And teach me to play!” As usual with Alexakis, it’s a bit much. But couldn’t you say the same thing about your life? CP