This is a series walking back the time line in my journey as a music fan. The previous post covered the teenage years — now we’re getting to my 20s.
U2 Achtung Baby
Like everyone else, I was just blown away by the transformation. The Edge’s guitars were so distorted and mangled, sometimes I didn’t know what they were (particularly in “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways”). This was the most complex music I encountered at the time, since it had so many layers. It rocked hard but it also had this dance groove. It was mysterious, abrasive, ironic, and vulnerable all at the same time. The songs flowed from one to another and every one of them had its place. This is perhaps the album I did the most research about, from interviews to documentaries to the book U2 at the End of the World. I learned that they went through a creative crisis. But the result is a pinnacle of their career — they’ve been trying to climb back to this point ever since, and failing to do so. There’s just something very special about this album, and to this day it’s very hard to pin down exactly what it is.
Midnight Oil Earth and Sun and Moon
I was already a fan of Midnight Oil from the seminal Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Morning, but in my mind this is their Achtung Baby. Their politics get all the attention but Midnight Oil had very wandering, experimental side. Their singer Peter Garrett is not a conventional “good” singer, his voice has this presence and intensity that defies and denies usual technical standards, but were complemented by soaring, towering backing vocals of Bones Hillman and Rob Hirst. The preceding albums had amazing songs but the pacing was odd and there was curious shortage of heft. Their vocals are serious and heavy-handed but the music somehow seemed more light-hearted and languid.
Not so with Earth and Sun and Moon. The production is more filled out, this is one case where going less raw and more produced really pushed forward the artistic agenda. Somehow the thicker arrangements made the guitars sound more ferocious and the songs had the gravity the vocals needed to deliver its point. The pacing remained unpredictable but it flowed better, from the mid-tempo stumper “Feeding Frenzy” flowing into the majestic up-tempo anthem “My Country” then onto the funky romp of “Renaissance Man.” “Earth and Sun and Moon” and “Outbreak of Love” were slow but not in the lax “ballad” kind of way — there was still simmering, pulsating groove, not allowing the momentum to bottom out. “In the Valley” offers an unexpected and surprising sense of hope in very personal ways, after all the raging and ranting about their society.
I’m not keen on Australian politics but in my life Midnight Oil was the first act that wielded the might of rock n roll to address topics truly worthy of its weight. Rallying against injustice seems much more justifiable channel for our aggression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying any art needs justification — but personally I felt this was the more righteous output of our energy, compared to pounding and thrashing about breaking up with your girlfriend. Midnight Oil is responsible for making me aware of this possibility, both in terms of literal liberal politics and use of art as your platform.
Pearl Jam Vs.
Pearl Jam turns out to be no less political than Midnight Oil, but they started out by rocking their personal demons. If Earth and Sun and Moon rocked me by expanding my view, Pearl Jam turned the same energy inward, channeling perhaps the very rawest and abrasive of all rock n roll I heard up to this point to address the most personal and intimate pains. Lyrics has always been a mysterious element to me, first because I didn’t understand English but then around here the mystery of lyrics started coming from the abstractness, rather than my challenged language capability. Midnight Oil was mysterious because I didn’t understand Aussie politics or culture. Pearl Jam I didn’t understand because the words don’t tell cohesive stories. But somehow that made me get into it even more, the mystery adding intrigue like oil into fire.
Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins all came onto my radar — I believe the brief period between ’92 and ’94 was a unique era in which the radio played rock songs that talked about things that mattered. But all the other guys had this drug-infused pessimism and sinisterness that didn’t sink into me. Pearl Jam was equally anguished but their bitterness addressed more discernable, visible struggles, rather than making blanket statements about how wrongly life dealt with them.
Toad the Wet Sprocket Fear and Dulcinea
Gentler than any of the above albums, Toad the Wet Sprocket used poetry and every-man persona to show me how relatable music can get. The lyrics still contained plenty of mystery — what the heck is “Walk on the Ocean” really about? — but their music seemed so unguarded, honest and true-to-life. These were not rock gods raging against the world. These were sentiments that felt so close to home, intimately familiar. That’s not to say that they can’t rock when the material called for — “Stories I Tell” is as dark and intense as rock music gets, and “Fall Down” crash and burn in a very satisfying manner. For the next 20+ years these albums become my most oft-played, and Toad still sits atop my short list of role models. I just adore how their music never spoon feeds any answers yet form an always-reliable conduit for my suppressed emotions. In comparison my music has darker edges and stretches out more, but the end goal is the same — whatever you’re holding inside, this is the music that helps you let it out, through the power of relating.
Jason Harrod and Brian Funck Dreams of the Color Blind
Harrod and Funck were Boston-based folk duo in the 90s, and gained enough traction to catch the eye of Mark Heard, a revered artist/producer in the budding indie Christian rock scene. Mark would pass away at the tender age of 40 and Harrod and Funck would disband a few years later, but not too long before all those untimely partings the three of them made this mystical, transcendent, immaculate gem of an album. Awash in delicious reverb that spread this otherworldly sheen over intricate acoustic guitars, their two voices tell tales not of religious fervor but bittersweet existential struggles. In fact there is little here that makes direct references to their religious dogma, I will bet that this will go over just fine for listeners of all faiths and inclinations, so long as you bring to the table a yearning to experience all things beautiful and true. I’ve listened to a lot of music but I am yet to come across anything that sounds remotely like this album. And I treasure it for that.
Looking back, in my early 20s the innocence and naïveté started giving away to more nuanced, complex and mysterious paths. All of these music had solid spiritual core but their expressions became less about answers and more about questions. It’s an outlook that forms my foundation to this day.
But from here, I head into darker and heavier directions.
To be continued.