So Much for the Afterglow
Where do you go from punk? If you embrace a style that rejects tradition, sophistication, and musicianship, how do you evolve without either selling out or repeating yourself endlessly? Many have tackled this question since the Sex Pistols’ 1978 flameout, but no one has come up with a convincing answer. New albums from two of the ’90s’ most successful punk bands demonstrate the difficulty of moving on.
Musically, Everclear may not be strictly “punk,” but the band is clearly descended from the hardcore-grunge lineage. In fact, Everclear’s 1995 breakthrough, Sparkle and Fade, sounded like the record Kurt Cobain would have made if he had managed to kick the hard stuff (as Art Alexakis did) and pull himself together, taking as its subject the impossibility of staying an adolescent forever and the difficulty of taking responsibility for your own life. Alexakis recast Bob Mould’s ’80s-punk confusion mantra “I don’t know” as “I know,” but it was an expression that conveyed not arrogance but the burden of earned wisdom. (Alexakis uttered the phrase 39 times on Sparkle and Fade, tossing in sundry “I don’t want to know”s and “You and me both know”s for good measure.) But making a great album out of acknowledging a dilemma is not the same thing as figuring out a solution to it; part of Sparkle and Fade’s grandeur lay in the fact that its most compelling tracks (“Santa Monica,” “Summerland”) were essentially suicide fantasies.
Alexakis’ tendency to write about characters confronting the dead ends of their lives is not the same thing, however, as his admitting that his group has nowhere to go. On So Much for the Afterglow, Alexakis (who has produced all three Everclear albums) tries to broaden his group’s tonal palette, starting the disc with a brief a cappella segment of impressively lush Beach Boys-style harmonies (which reappear on a couple of tunes), adding the Vox stylings of annoying Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee to two cuts, tossing horns onto one track and strings onto two, and building “Why I Don’t Believe in God” around a banjo and an acoustic guitar.
This instrumental eclecticism adds interest to some of the cuts, but it diminishes the album’s cohesiveness and makes Afterglow sound thin compared with Sparkle, which built up momentum partly from the simplicity of its beautifully balanced guitar-bass-drum arrangements. Afterglow’s best moments come, as did the prior record’s, when Alexakis simply ups the emotional intensity, as he does on “Normal Like You.”
Without the varied sounds, though, some of Afterglow’s songs would sound uncomfortably like earlier ones. Alexakis’ tunesmithing continues to occupy a narrow range: “Everything to Everyone” is based closely on “You Make Me Feel Like a Whore,” while “I Will Buy You a New Life” shares a lot of “Santa Monica”‘s genes.
Lyrically, he has hardly branched out at all. In addition to recapitulating the general themes of self-analysis and self-accusation (Afterglow’s “I know” count is 30), Alexakis repeats very specific tropes. “Why I Don’t Believe in God” concerns the singer’s recalling the trauma of his mother’s nervous breakdown, whereas Sparkle’s “Queen of the Air” dealt with the singer’s distress at recovering the memory of his mother’s suicide. (As autobiographical as his songs seem, Alexakis’ mother is alive and well and, according to her son, has always been there for him.) “Sunflowers” uses as its central metaphor the decorations of a child’s bedroom, as did Sparkle’s “Pale Green Stars.” There is even a song about a woman closely associated with a drug (“They call her Amphetamine”), à la “Heroin Girl.”
Whereas nearly every lyric on Sparkle focused on the singer, the new disc does diversify somewhat in that a number of its songs’ criticisms are framed in the second person (“Everything to Everyone,” “Like a California King”). Unfortunately, these cuts seem like mere putdowns compared with the painful self-assessment Alexakis underwent on Sparkle.
Another difference lies in the discs’ programming. Sparkle was extremely top-heavy, opening with a five-song suite that announced the album’s themes, climaxing with the back-to-back anthems “Santa Monica” and “Summerland.” Afterglow is divided into halves by the dissonant instrumental “El Distorto de Melodica” (which sounds like a throwback to the band’s first long-player, World of Noise), perhaps out of an atavistic longing for the structure imposed by the two sides of an LP. The title cut starts the album with an appropriately speedy, businesslike tone, but after that Afterglow meanders, never finding any thematic flow. Alexakis is a skillful writer, arranger, and producer, and a moving singer, but his greatest talent is his knack for self-revelation; Afterglow is a good record, but Alexakis may have given away all he had last time out.
Oddly, Green Day’s new disc is also divided in half by an instrumental: “Last Ride In,” a midtempo (which by band standards means real slow) surf number that features keyboards, xylophone, brass, and bongos. The logic of two-sided programming is clearer in nimrod.’s case than in Afterglow’s: “Last Ride In”‘s varied instrumentation is the first indication that the latter parts of nimrod. will allow for more colors than do Green Day’s rigorously minimal trio arrangements. The song also, mercifully, allows the listener to pause after a half-album’s worth.
Which is not to imply that I don’t like Green Day. I do. I freely admit that guitarist/singer Billie Joe’s lyrics are unedifyinghackneyed, redundant, and amateurishly cobbled together. The words are frequently hard to make out not because Billie Joe’s enunciation needs work but because his prosody sucks, with stresses assigned at random. Those lyrics are the only truly “punk” thing about the band, trappings notwithstanding. Instrumentally, Billie Joe, bassist Mike Dirnt, and ace drummer Tre Cool are agile and tight, with every song on pitch and in time. Sure, they have never even seemed aware that they aren’t doing anything original, but what they dofast, clean pop-punkthey do better than anyone.
Apart from one song with a harmonica (“Walking Alone”), one with Dixieland horns (“King for a Day”), and one midtempo acoustic-guitar-with-strings number (“Good Riddance”), the three don’t stray far from the sound that made them ’94’s breakout success story. Tracks 1 through 9 play just like a Green Day album, only half as longand that’s a wonderful thing. “Nice Guys Finish Last” leads off with a typically irresistible sing-along chorus; then standout tunes “Redundant” and “Scattered” carry the listener to “Uptight,” a rousing side-ender if ever there was one. That’s enough of the band in one sitting for anyone, and “Last Ride In” lets you know you can call it a Day.
Given the negligible maturation Green Day has shown since Dookie made the band huge, it seems unlikely that Billie Joe et al. will figure out how punks can age gracefullyeven though they have a long way to go before they’ll be old. Perhaps they will soldier on ad infinitum, Ramoneslike; more likely, I think, Billie Joe will become the next Danny Elfman or Mark Mothersbaugh, writing music for movies or children’s TV (“Last Ride In” recalls the theme to Pee-wee’s Playhouse as much as anything else). He’d probably be good at it.CP