Fear is Toad the Wet Sprocket’s coming-of-age album, one where they graduated from woodshedding of the first two albums (which aren’t without their charms) to a fully-formed artist. And what an artistry it is. 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of its release, but a quarter-century hasn’t resulted in the album sounding aged at all, both in terms of relevance and production value. Containing both their biggest hits (“All I Want”) and perhaps most consistent set of tunes, this is the album I’d recommend to the uninitiated as the entry point to Toad’s catalog.
The album opens nonchalantly with their signature tune “Walk on the Ocean” which is just as indescribable as Toad’s artistic identity. Languid yet steady, nostalgic and poignant, the song takes us through a mysterious journey in which we venture out of the harsh reality, witness some miracles, only to be pulled back into an unsettling homecoming. If you think rock n roll is music to pump your fist to with beer bottle in your hand, this stuff will make your head spin. Yet Glen Phillips’ every-man vocal anchors the impressionist soundscape with a chorus that is as supremely sing-along-able as anything you hear on the rock radio.
From there Toad takes us through eleven more songs that go up and down effortlessly both in terms of momentum and intensity, with not a single weak spot in sight. “Is It for Me” “Hold Her Down” “Before You Were Born” all rock hard while painting vivid pictures of childhood adventure going awry, sexual violence and personal rejection. “Something to Say” and “All I Want” are more reassuring, even if not entirely able to abandon the melancholy behind. “Pray Your Gods” and “Stories I Tell” go into somber and scary places in our psyche, but those are the low points that make the closer “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted” all the more uplifting. Even the shortest song “Nightingale Song” is a perfectly crafted gem about life’s humbling moments.
Fear was an album where Toad had a bigger production budget (compared to the first two albums) to work with, and the producer Gavin McKillop creates a reverb-drenched (but not abused) sonic soundscape that highlights the mystery that exists in Toad’s songs. Philips, guitarist Todd Nichols and bassist Dean Dinning took advantage of the longer studio time by creating denser and more varied layers than they have done before or since, and the result is an album full of beautiful acoustic layers made up of nifty little lines, without sounding earthy or rustic like a proper “folk” music is supposed to. That’s why it’s always struck me as odd to describe Toad as a “folk rock” band — just having the singer strum acoustic guitar doesn’t make it sound folky. Instead I may call this an introvert’s rock, because as relatable as some of Glen’s lyrics are, Toad is about subtlety, ambiguity and shades of gray. In fact, it’s the not-quite-making-sense aspect of both their lyrics and music that makes their songs all the more powerful, when you do come across the parts where they say something you can clearly relate to. You can’t quite make out the story but you clearly feel something. That’s why they are my #1 songwriting role models, and Fear is perhaps the pinnacle of their artistry. That’s not to say that they have released an inferior album after this one — they really haven’t — but other collections wander a bit more, making this one the most cohesive collection. If you’re not a Toad fan yet, or you only know them from the hits you heard on the radio in the 90’s, this is the place to start.