IN 1996, the Minneapolis-based trio Semisonic served notice that they had a future in pop music with their debut album Great Divide. Among the attention that it received, the best publicity was its inclusion in the year-end best-of list compiled by Rolling Stone magazine.
The follow-up, Feeling Strangely Fine, proves that the debut was no fluke. Again, it combines timeless traits of classic American and British pop with very ’90s hooks and devices.
The band’s skill and strategy are clear from the album’s first track, the leadoff single and video Closing Time. A build-up from rhythm guitar to piano to strings has set up classic pop tunes for generations, and it is the strategy of songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Dan Wilson, compatriots John Munson (bass/vocals) and Jacob Slichter (drums/piano/vocals) and Australian producer Nick Launay. The mellow stanza/power chord dichotomy, reminiscent of everyone from Soul Asylum to Nirvana, is the ’90s edge.
That single’s success notwithstanding, Feeling Strangely Fine is not a one-song album. Lyrically, it is a song cycle that addresses pop music’s most timeless topic – the love relationship – in a way that may disappoint the Christian listener. The cycle of singles’ bar meeting, courtship, consummation, marriage, and dissolution, however, is sadly typical of the contemporary morality of our culture.
Closing Time sees the relationship begin as the couple meets late one night in a bar. The next track, Singing in My Sleep, is the long-distance relationship kept alive with music. The vocal narrator falls in love with the protagonist while listening to a mixed tape of tunes she has made for him. On it, Slichter moves from one retro electric piano (a Wurlitzer on Closing Time) to another (a Fender Rhodes on Singing in My Sleep).
The following cut, Made To Last, could be interpreted as a narrator’s wish for lasting love, though it could also be taken as a band’s desire for a long-term fan base. What follows is a fight (Never You Mind, complete with killer lead guitar cameo work by Matt Wilson, brother of Dan and former axe wielder for Trip Shakespeare), the longing for love (Secret Smile), and consummation (the lullaby DND, complete with acoustic and slide guitars and string embellishments).
The relationship realized, there is satisfaction (Completely Pleased), long-term hope (This Will Be My Year) and knot-tying (All Worked Out).
The euphoria moves to chaos in the cryptic disaster tale California, the tender She Spreads Her Wings, and the bittersweet album-closer, Gone To The Movies. This gives a purely ’90s end to a song cycle of love in a generation with its share of nuptial unhappy endings.
While Christians might wag their tongue at either this album’s storyline or the ultimately sad lot of souls caught in this whirlwind that leads to unhappy failure, a more Christ-like response would be, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Those of us in happy relationships would do well to thank God for that beautiful gift that has its source in God’s love, and deal with Christ-like compassion with the legion of folks who, at one point in time or another, are less fortunate in the cycle expounded in Semisonic’s sadly-typical storyline. Rev. Wilfred Langmaid is rector of Carleton, Saint John, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.