David Nilsen and I Discuss Grace by Jeff Buckley

 More 90s nostalgia today as David Nilsen and I discuss Grace by Jefd Buckley, which is quite clearly not the 304th best album of all time.

Katy Goodwin-Bates: Should we just start by saying that Grace is possibly the most beautiful album of ever and then spend the rest of the chat riffing about scones or something? I listened to the whole thing from start to finish last night and was in an ecstatic stupor by Forget Her. I just read that Rolling Stone named Grace the 304th best album of all time. 304! As if there are 303 albums that are even comparable, never mind better!

David Nilsen: I like when we start with rants and then go from there.

Also, any conversation about scones between us would probably devolve into a semantic debate about what, in fact, a scone is.

Katy: Not that again. International relations are bad enough.

David: Right? So. Grace.

Katy: Definitely one of my top 5 albums ever.

David: It’s in my top 20, probably. It’s beautiful. Truly remarkable.

Also, while the music doesn’t feel dated to the 90s in the way some of the other albums we’ve discussed have, this still feels like an album that couldn’t happen today. Feels uniquely of its era, though I struggle to explain why.

Katy: I thought the same thing. Part of it, I think, is his voice, which I can’t imagine hearing as a new sound today; it’s got a weird timeless quality that actually makes if feel like it doesn’t belong in any era. If you compare to him the male singer-songwriters of 2017, he sounds totally different; I thing the same applies to your much-loved Elliott Smith, actually. Both achieve a level of emotion which I think the Sheerans and Jonases of this world could only dream of.

David: Maybe it’s a type of earnest emotional sincerity that feels like it broke out just before irony became king?

Katy: Absolutely. You’ve just phrased my own thought far more eloquently than I did.

David: I think Elliott could still happen today, but you’re right on Buckley. His voice is…something. I think that struck me more than anything on this listen, though I’ve listened to the album countless times over the year. His voice is an instrument all its own.

Katy: I read that he has the same vocal range as Pavarotti. Apparently this is very rare.

David: The only current male singer I feel like can possibly do comparable things (though not the exact same) is Sufjan Stevens.

His upper range really is something. It isn’t even a falsetto. He can belt out those high notes.

Katy: I think of Grace as very operatic so this fact pleases me a lot. It sounds so effortless though, doesn’t it? There’s no strain in his voice at all. Really all other singers must have hated him.

David: Operatic is a good word. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s apt.

Katy: He manages to make it really natural and subtle though. There are amazing vocal gymnastics on Grace but it never sounds like he’s just showing off. If you imagine Mariah Carey singing those songs, it’s a whole other terrifying story.

David: Hey, whatever else we say about Mariah, we have to acknowledge that voice. I’d show off with it too.

Katy: True.

The vocals on Grace kill me, to be honest. It’s one of the few albums that makes me aware of every note. There’s only one song on it I don’t particularly like (Corpus Christi Carol) but even that is lovely to listen to. It’s devastating that this was his only proper album.

David: Truly.

So how did you come to this album?

Katy: To be honest, I don’t actually know. Around 2002 I had a kind of taste renaissance and became the discerning music snob I remain to this day, and Grace was one of the albums I caught up on at that time. I remember buying it on CD and playing it constantly in the kitchen at the Pizza Hut where I worked part-time while at uni until my manager told me the customers were concerned by all the wailing. I assume this referred to my attempts to sing along rather than Jeff’s astonishing vocal range.

How about you?

David: That’s an excellent back story.

I don’t remember either. It was definitely in adulthood, and probably no more than 10 years ago. I think (sheepishly) I probably heard his cover of Hallelujah first. I’ve had the vinyl for a while.

Katy: I think I heard Hallelujah first too; I believe it featured on an episode of The OC and that is most likely what made me buy the album.

I don’t think we should be sheepish about this.

David: We’ll get to Hallelujah in time, I guess. Shall we start on the songs?

Mojo Pin.

Katy: Such a statement of intent! This song goes through so many phases. It is like a very angsty musical rollercoaster. I love the quiet-loud-quiet thing. It’s so mid-90s. Probably the only “typical” thing about this album.

David: Yes. One thing that struck me with this song and something that continues throughout the album, is the structure. They’re almost architectural in their assembly. They work through movements and have distinct phases, like you said. That’s probably what makes them operatic, like you were describing. What makes that all the more remarkable is that they are so emotional. These songs are controlled and structured, but bleed with feeling despite their precision and planning.

Katy: All true, yet with an experimental edge too. It’s like he and the band suddenly think “let’s try this!” and the songs shift in a direction you don’t expect. Mojo Pin is a great contradiction to the more overtly emotional songs too; it’s quite a shock if you’re expecting an album of Hallelujahs.

David: It’s the perfect opening for the breadth of what’s coming.

Katy: Like an overture at the theatre, to continue that metaphor.

David: Nice. I like that.

Katy: Then Grace builds on that sweep from delicate to big and loud. I am obsessed with the “oooooohhhhhh” bits in that song.

David: Content aside, “Mojo Pin” is an extremely 1990s song title.

Katy: Future discussion: ultimate 90s song titles.

David: Real quick before Grace, apparently there is some debate about whether or not Mojo Pin is about speed, or about a dream Buckley had about a black woman.

And yes to that bookmarked discussion.

Katy: Really? Sometimes I think it’s better to just not know this stuff.

David: You’re probably right, but sometimes I can’t help it.

Katy: I basically never think about what songs are about because I am very self-involved and like to make them all about me.

David: With that, we can move on to Grace.

Katy: Thank you.

David: This is another song that shows off everything that makes this album so great. His voice, the guitar, those rapid but precise drums.

Katy: It is another brilliantly structured song with wonderful build-up. The lyrics to this read like bad teenager poetry though. I think I will stick to just listening.

David: Yes. That is consistent, I think, and fits with the earnest 90s sincerity of the album’s emotion. Musically, it works. Lyrically, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

There is so much emotion in this song.

Katy: It’s a testament to the astounding nature of the music that you can listen to this song for 15 years and not notice the silly lyrics.

David: Well, that and his enunciation is sometimes obscured in the sonic complexity of the music.

Katy: Especially at the end when there’s all the somehow very beautiful screaming.

David: There’s a possibility, probably best left unexplored, that Jeff Buckley was an insufferable emo kid before there was emo.

Katy: He was definitely an emo. This makes me like him even more

Please can we talk about Last Goodbye because I love that song enough to marry it.

David: It’s incredible.

That “Kiss me. Please kiss me.”


Katy: It’s the first song on the album with a really coherent narrative, and it’s so tragic and gorgeous. Yes, that line gets me too, especially the “out of desire not consolation” part. That makes up for any previous lyrical lapses.

David: For sure. It feels like a break from the first two songs. More melodic?

Katy: Definitely. I feel like he’s saying ‘ok, now that I’ve got your attention, here’s where I make you all fall in love with me.”

David: Totally. I think we all agree to do whatever he tells us by the time he hits that chorus.

Katy: Incidentally, if he’d been born 20 years later, he’d be a totally different artist, don’t you think? A major label would not release something this weird (because in a lot of ways it is) from such a good-looking guy. They’d want mass appeal and a Twitter presence and it would be horrible. In many ways, we are all lucky Grace came out when it did because, aside from it’s sonic appeal, it’s the kind of music that you’d struggle to find now, I think.

David: I think he’d be a Sufjan type. Sufjan is weird as fuck, and I see a lot of similarities between them.

Katy: I suppose Grace didn’t have massive commercial success in ‘94 so perhaps it wouldn’t make that much difference. I just think massive sacrifices would have to be made with the music once a label realised the guy singing it was such a dreamboat.

Shall I tell you about my Jeff Buckley pilgrimage?

David: While you’re doing that, I’ll continue my Sufjan thought. There is sexual ambiguity around both of them, I think. Buckley seems like one of the first male musicians of the last couple decades who straight guys could be like “Yeah, he’s attractive” about. He’s like emo Elvis.

Katy: Let’s start a band called Emo Elvis.

I am not overly familiar with Sufjan so I will just defer to your wisdom.

David: Katy, you must listen to Sufjan. He’s among my 10 favorite musicians. Listen to Carrie & Lowell or Come On Feel the Illinoise.

Katy: I will do this. I promise. He’s never really had a moment over here, although he is name-checked in a Snow Patrol song.

David: Sufjan?

Katy: Yes. In the song Hands Open. I just checked it wasn’t something I’ve been mishearing for years.

I have little to say of Lilac Wine except to sigh and melt in its utter loveliness.

David: It turns out this is actually a cover, which I probably should have known. It was written by James Shelton and covered by Nina Simone, and now I need to hear that version, because she is divine.

Fun fact: my wife’s niece is named Nina Symone in her honor.

Katy: I like that.

David: Me too.

So Real then.

This is one of those songs where it’s best to just ignore the lyrics, because they’re kind of overwrought. The emotions are more evocative when you hear him singing about how real that was, before you know he’s just talking about these super basic images.

Katy: Funnily enough, I just looked up the lyrics and wished I hadn’t. Sonically it has that overwrought vibe that we’ve mentioned in some of the other songs, and I like that.

David: He makes it work, but it teeters right on the edge of being too much. He rides that line perfectly.

Katy: And then you get the opposite with Hallelujah, which is so beautifully controlled.

David: God. I don’t even know where to start.

Katy: So many versions of that song go overboard. This is the proper version for me.

David: I guess we need to address the fact that this might be the most over-covered song in history. It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and yet it’s almost become this cliche. There are, in my opinion, three truly great versions: Cohen’s own, this one, and Rufus Wainwright’s.

Katy: This was the first I heard (sadly, I think when it was featured on The OC), so for me it’s the standard. This is probably wrong when it’s a Leonard Cohen song, but never mind. A boy at school once sang it so horribly I was honestly traumatised.

David: It’s just been done too much. We need to issue a moratorium on covering this song for the next 20 years. Then, maybe, someone can give it another crack. It’s to the point where even artists I like annoy me when they try it. Just…why? Do you think you’ll honestly bring something new to it?

Also, I might have you beat on where I first heard this: Shrek.

Katy: I love this fact.

David: Handle it wisely. In my defense, I was 19 when Shrek came out, and that’s about the right age to fall in love with this song.

Katy: I am not judging you. I promise. I remember listening to it on CD for the first time and even from the breath at the beginning I thought “now, this is something special.”

David: I love what he does with the rhythm of the individual phrases and inflections, adjusting them just enough so you have to really pay attention to them.

And those opening guitar notes. My heart.

Katy: This version is probably one of my favourite songs. It’s just so lovely. All so gentle and tragic.

David: Absolutely. I can have trouble sometimes blocking out the cultural baggage we’ve discussed with the prevalence of this song, but taken on its own, absolutely. It’s just perfect songwriting, and Buckley performs it perfectly.

Katy: Lover You Should Have Come Over.

Possibly the perfect song?

David: It’s very good. I like how it builds, but unlike some of the earlier songs, it never gets operatic. It stays perfectly restrained.

Katy: And it’s one of the songs on which the lyrics are actually quite beautiful. “Too young to hold on, too old to just break free and run” is one I particularly love.

And the bit about a kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder; that makes me die a little bit.

David: Yeah, that is nice. This might be his best song lyrically.

So tell me your thoughts about Corpus Christi Carol.

Katy: My thoughts are usually “skip.” It’s a bit too much for me.

David: I get that, but I like a lot of things about it. First of all, his goddamn voice. It’s just so pretty. How does one even have a voice like that?

The song doesn’t really fit on the album, but taken on its own, it’s quite lovely and haunting.

I love the back story for it too. Apparently a friend introduced him to the song in high school, so he just wanted to sing it for him. it doesn’t fit at all, and that’s kind of what I like about it.

Katy: That is a nice way for it to come to be on the album.

David: I have a friend who was driving home from a New Years Eve party late one snowy evening, and this song came on his college radio station. It feels like the perfect weird thing to have come on at that moment, like the b-side to Auld Lang Syne.

Katy: I get that. I agree that it doesn’t fit, but you’re right to say it works. It is a pretty eclectic album, which I often forget because I am so inclined to over-listen to the songs I love and not pay much attention to the few I’ve never really connected with.

David: Speaking of not connecting, Eternal Life is probably my least favorite song on the album.

The opening is so faux-tough, and while we’ve agreed to not pay attention to lyrics, these ones are so forced and egregious. It’s like “Racism is bad and I’m real mad about it, guys. You can tell because of the guitars on this song.”

Katy: Oh I quite like Eternal Life. The return of the histrionic rage is quite appealing to me.

David: But it feels like false rage to me. He’s such a romantic, and while I believe him that he thinks racism and war are bad, I believe him a lot more when he’s crying because his girlfriend broke up with him. His emotion here sounds play-acted to me.

Katy: Fair point. I like the contrast between this and Corpus Christi Carol. It seems like something nobody else would attempt, especially in an era when we had to listen to albums properly and without shuffle.

David: Dream Brother is a weird way to end this album.

We have a saying here in Ohio about the month of March: “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” We can get blizzards the first week of March and then be in the 70s with flowers sprouting by the end. This album feels that way. It starts so operatically, and then the song is so chill. It’s a good song, but I think I would have preferred something more grandiose to polish it off.

Katy: Hang on, what about Forget Her? Is that not the last track?

David: Forget Her is not on the original album. There was a bunch of drama about that. He never wanted it included, and so the album didn’t initially, and then he died and his record label was like “fuck his last wishes” and put it on all the subsequent pressings. So my original vinyl version doesn’t have it.

Katy: I did not know that! Dream Brother is really weird. It’s like the overlong noodly track he’d probably play live and that would be when everyone would go to the bar.

Also after our conversation when I boldly said there is no good music any more I have discovered about 8 zillion amazing bands and artists on Spotify. Now I am cool again.

David: Right? So many good bands. I look forward to our post-2000 music discussions which we’ll get to once our kids are in college.

David Nilsen and I Discuss Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt

In the latest of our 90s album discussions, David Nilsen and I tackle No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. Don’t worry; this time we agree on stuffYou can also read our previous discussions of albums by Hole, Tori Amos, Oasis, and Garbage.

David Nilsen: So, Tragic Kingdom.

Katy Goodwin-Bates: Wait. Is that a comment on today’s politics or a reference to the No Doubt album?

David: This is one of the first albums we’ve discussed that I fell hard for as soon as it was released. Through a weird set of circumstances, my religiously sheltered family had cable television starting in 1995. How my parents allowed MTV into the house, I have no idea, but whenever they were out of the house, I watched it non-stop. An unhealthy amount of my sex-ed came from shows like Loveline, Singled Out, and Sex in the 90s. This—along with the local top 40 station I listened to in my room quietly and secretly at night—was also how I kept up with popular music in junior high and early high school (for those younger readers, this was back when MTV played music videos). When “Don’t Speak” came out, I was floored.

Also—I’m just going to be honest here—it began a raging crush on Gwen Stefani that lasted for the next five years of my life.

How did you find the album and the band?

Katy: I am still hoping to be Gwen Stefani when I grow up.

I came to the band and album in basically the same way; Don’t Speak was all over music TV and national radio and became a total anthem. I remember asking for Tragic Kingdom on CD in lieu of an Easter egg in 1996 and my sister being outraged because a CD cost twice as much as a chocolatey treat.

I definitely spent a few lunch breaks at my all girls’ school standing on the tables with the rest of my form and belting out Don’t Speak. Because it was that or Latin homework.

David: That’s a fun mental image. Sounds like something from a movie.

Katy: Also subjected to this treatment: Always by Bon Jovi and I’ll Never Break Your Heart by the Backstreet Boys. We were an eclectic bunch.

David: 1 for 3 isn’t bad, I guess.

Katy: More than any of the other albums we’ve discussed, I feel like Tragic Kingdom has always been with me. It’s one of the albums I feel most familiar with and it’s been with me through everything.

David: Yeah, it’s probably been with me longer than almost any other. Or at least, no album I still love has been with me longer. I found Oasis around the same time, but my feelings about Oasis have definitely changed since then. I still love No Doubt, and this album is still fantastic.

Katy: I feel like it sounds like 1996 but in a profoundly good way.

David: It’s strange the way this album has aged. It does sound like a distinctly 90s album, and yet it doesn’t sound dated at all. You would think with as singular as their sound was it would be super dated, but it isn’t. All the best tracks are still fresh.

Katy: I feel this is partly a reflection on terrible music of 2017 and its preceding years. If everything sounded like Tragic Kingdon the world would be a nicer place.

Which are your favourite tracks?

David: Oh, there is still good music. Come now.

Katy: Go on. Like what?

David: Sufjan Stevens, Perfume Genius, Arcade Fire, The National, Saint Etienne, Allie X, LP, Manita Nerviosas, Father John Misty… How many do I need to list?

Katy: Some that have actually come out in this decade? Saint Etienne are older than me! Also I am worried that Arcade Fire have lost it.

David: Saint Etienne have a new album out.

Katy: But surely you can hardly class them as the sound of 2017?

David: Wait. Does this have to be artists who debuted this year?

Because No Doubt formed in the late 80s. First album was 1992. By that measure, they aren’t the sound of 1995 either.

Katy: BUT Tragic Kingdom was a huge album of 1996. Sadly, 2017 is going to be remembered as the year of Ed Sheeran.

David: 1995.

Katy: I think it came out in 96 over here. Anyway, which songs do you like?

David: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Spiderwebs is a fantastic opening track. Sets the tone both in mood and sound for the entire album.

Katy: I love Spiderwebs too. My cat frequently returns from her outside jaunts covered in actual spiderwebs and I like to serenade her with this song.

David: I feel like this is one of those albums where the singles are consistently the best songs.

Spiderwebs, Just a Girl, Don’t Speak, Sunday Morning…

Katy: Sunday Morning barely sold any copies here and I forgot Spiderwebs was a single.

I have been thinking about our little aside about music in 2017. You are right: obviously there is good music still being made. Here in the UK, at least, the problem is finding it. Mainstream radio (by which I mean BBC Radio One) essentially plays the same three songs all day and just pretends they’re by different people. Or I am getting old. I listen to BBC 6music, which is less mainstream and a lot more alternative, and I do hear great songs every day on there, but they aren’t songs that most people will ever listen to. That was my point about the musical zeitgeist; the artists you mentioned in your rebuttal are all cool and undoubtedly their output remains strong, but—aside from Arcade Fire—they aren’t going to be particularly well-known which, to me, means they won’t be the wider sound of 2017. Everyone I knew in the mid-90s (admittedly, all teenage girls) had Tragic Kingdom and worshipped Gwen Stefani. I don’t see anything that I am inspired by having that effect now. Maybe we just have too much music these days? Do you find that you listen to new music much? By which I mean new bands. My listening is basically divided into: 90s bands; the Strokes and their contemporaries; late 70s punk plus Blondie; gloomy white boy bands, and random female-led groups I seek out on Spotify. I spend a lot of time immersed in nostalgia.

Incidentally, I think you would massively disapprove of my love for some of my favourite bands. I like to pretend I’m cool but it probably isn’t true.

David: I won’t disapprove of you as long as you don’t disapprove of me. I’m over “guilty pleasures.” We’re complicated human beings and we like things that seem contradictory sometimes. I’m a Lana Del Rey fan. I don’t know what to say.

I do try to seek out new music. I haven’t listened to the radio more than half a dozen times in the last 5 years, I bet, so I don’t know much of what’s on there. My assumption is it’s mostly terrible, or at least incredibly repetitive. I look for good tips in magazines or websites. I find Bitch has really good recommendations. I listen to a lot of older stuff too, of course, but I try to have new things on a regular basis to inject life into my listening and make sure I don’t stagnate.

I think you’re right though that the “sound” of 2017 as based on what’s popular or on the radio is going to be depressing and forgettable compared to the popular sounds of 1985 or 1995. Some of that is accessibility. As more music is available to everyone because of the internet, there’s no longer a need to try to push good stuff to the top and be on the top 40. So that shit gets more and more corporate and bland. I think there’s probably more actual good music now, it’s just diversified across so many different media channels that there is no one “sound” that most of the culture recognizes.

As for Tragic Kingdom, it’s really, really good. Going back to my earlier point, it’s unusual for an album that was had such a distinctive sound 20+ years ago to still be fresh today, but it totally is. Maybe that’s why it’s fresh—because it didn’t sound like 1995/6 at the time.

Spiderwebs is such a great opening track. It’s so much fun. So singable and dance-worthy. Great way to open the album. That chorus.

Katy: Agreed. Spiderwebs sounds like nothing else and it’s a great statement of intent for an album that doesn’t really sound like anything else. It’s really joyous.

David: Speaking of statements of intent, Just a Girl is the band’s anthem and spiritual manifesto, right? This is their philosophical core?

Katy: Discovering that song as a 13 year old girl was amazing; I hadn’t been confronted with much in the way of sexism at that point but Just a Girl really lit a fire for me. Sadly, it’s become more of an anthem on a personal level as I’ve grown up (yay, progress), but that doesn’t diminish my joy in hearing it. I love how angry it is, from Gwen’s snarling vocal to the lyrics, especially the arms-in-air exasperation of “lucky me!”

It’s one of my favourite songs of ever.

I love some of the lesser-played tracks too. Different People has always been a big favourite for me and the last two tracks are massive tunes.

I always particularly liked the bit in Different People about the two sisters: “so different yet so the same…it’s rare that two can get along but when they do they’re inseparable.” That sums up my relationship with my sister. Gwen, how did you know?

David: Different Now is really fun, for sure. I like the guitar part in Happy Now? too.

Hey You and The Climb both feel pretty forgettable. Evidenced by the fact I forgot about them till I listened to this again.

Sixteen is great. Feels like the thematic b-side to Just a Girl. Was this a single too? I can’t remember.

Katy: I actually really like The Climb. It’s not the best song ever but I like how it builds and kind of soars.

The B-side of Just a Girl was actually Open the Gate which is (to use a phrase I know you enjoy) a TOTAL BANGER.

David: I’m not sure I know that one.

Katy: You have to look it up. I was obsessed with it.

David: I will do that.

At any rate, I love Sixteen.

And Sunday Morning. This is one of my favorites on the album.

Katy: Sixteen, weirdly, is one of my least favourites on the album. As a teenager I felt like it wasn’t melodic enough to be nice to listen to but at the same time not shouty enough to be a soundtrack to slamming the bedroom door. I mean, I probably didn’t describe it so pretentiously in the mid 90s but that’s what I meant.

I do like Sunday Morning though.

You know, I find it surprisingly difficult to analyse this album. I just enjoy it so much it’s hard to achieve any kind of academic distance. And I feel like I’ve never really been away from it, whereas with the other albums we’ve discussed I’ve had to revisit them and been able to come up with actual thoughts. With Tragic Kingdom my instinct is really just to wave my arms around and shriek over each song.

David: That makes sense.

Have you seen No Doubt in concert? I saw them in 2002 on their Rock Steady tour.

Katy: No! I am now insanely jealous.

David: They rocked. I was on the floor about 20 feet from the stage. And, so, from Gwen Stefani.

Katy: Oh stop. How does her voice sound live?

David: They sounded legitimately good. There wasn’t a drop off.

David: She improvised a few lyrics, which was fun. “Should have thought of that before we kissed” on Ex-Girlfriend got turned into “fucked,” while she flipped off the crowd. I’m sure all the soccer moms who brought their 10 year olds (a lot of them in the stands) were probably less than thrilled.

The Distillers opened, and were fun. Unfortunately, so did Good Charlotte, and they sucked.

Katy: Some interesting conversations were probably had on the drive home.

I LOVE Distillers. I used to listen to them super loud on headphones on the way out of a shitty, soul-destroying office job every day. Everyone else in the lift was terrified of me.

I like to think Gwen inspired a lot of those 10 year olds to start awesome bands. She’s a great rock role model.

David: Right? We can only hope.

Well, we’ve come to Don’t Speak.

Katy: I mean, what can you say about that song? It’s a great big 90s behemoth. I’d go so far as to say it’s bordering on perfection. Gwen manages vulnerability and rage and heartache and the overall effect is to make me wish I had a really painful breakup in my past to relate it to (rather than just a mediocre episode involving a nerdy politics student who just didn’t want a girlfriend). A lot of the big songs from the 90s make me cringe or roll my eyes now (Bittersweet Symphony, I’m looking at you) but Don’t Speak remains perfection. I assume you completely agree with all these reflections.

David: Don’t Speak is damn near sonic perfection. Those opening chords are so warm, and everything about it is…well…

This song is an achievement. It is all the things you said.

It’s really an outlier on the album. This isn’t a “fun” song, or a danceable one, really. It has more in common with baroque 80s power ballads. While far better, it has more in common with Still Loving You by The Scorpions than it does with the rest of the No Doubt sound.

I love the Latin sound to the guitar solo/bridge.

I wonder if Don’t Speak is my favorite radio single of the 90s? I haven’t really thought about it before. It might be. That sounds like something I should probably waste a lot of time figuring out.

Katy: I think great radio singles of the 90s is a whole other epic discussion. Creep would have to be up there.

You’re right about Don’t Speak having a different vibe. Even when they get mellow elsewhere, it’s more of a reggae/ska infused sound whereas Don’t Speak is its own marvellous thing.

Incidentally, are you aware of the No Doubt Christmas song? It is called Oi! To the World and it is a genius.

David: I don’t think I have heard that one. If I have, I’ve forgotten.

As a teenager, I would imagine I was in a band. I would listen to my favorite songs and imagine they were ours and picture being on stage playing them (full disclosure: I still sometimes do this). Don’t Speak was one of our biggest hits.

Katy: I have a playlist on my iPod consisting of all my imaginary band’s songs. This is completely normal.

David: Good. I do too. It’s called “Why Can’t I Be You?” (that is the real, actual name of the playlist).

Katy: I am going to need to know what’s on it.

David: That feels like reading my diary.

So, No Doubt then. “You Can Do It” reminds me of Teena Marie.

Katy: I will need to consult Google to see if I agree with that. Just reading the title has now embedded that song in my brain. I am nodding along. I am pretty sure I look like a crazy person. The hit rate of actual brilliant songs on this album must be better than basically any other record ever.

David: Most people know Teena Marie from the song Lead Me On on the Top Gun soundtrack.

You might hate me for this, but I’m not big on the final three tracks. I feel like the album is maybe a track or two too long.

Katy: Oh no! The final 2 tracks are my favourites. I love the title track; it’s so bombastic and huge. It is No Doubt’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

David: They’re your favorites? On the entire album?

Katy: Let me think about this. Aside from Don’t Speak and Just a Girl, yes. I think so. They must be the tracks I’ve listened to the most. End it on This is on my special playlist of songs my imaginary band plays. So yes, in spite of your obvious incredulity and derision, they are in my top 5 songs on this album. Drops mic.

David: Katy, you dropped your mic. You should probably pick it back up.

Katy: No. The mic stays dropped.

David: Give me a few minutes to listen to these songs again and decide how you’re wrong.

Katy: I will wait.

David: End It On This is fine? I like it because I like No Doubt, but I maintain my position. It’s not a standout for me.

Katy: I like to think of it as a sequel to Don’t Speak. Gwen’s like “you know, halfway through this album I was proper sad about this breakup but now it’s the penultimate track and let’s just finish it already.” Of course, the final track having “tragic” in the title somewhat undermines my theory of the album’s narrative arc.

David: You know, listening with fresh ears to Tragic Kingdom, I think I get what you’re saying. It’s still not in my top 5 for the album, but I totally get where you’re coming from. I never would have thought of the Bohemian Rhapsody comparison, but I think that’s apt. Good call. It has a baroque, disorienting, at times frenzied quality that makes it an appropriate end to the album.

Katy: I think all bands need a Bo-Rhap to call their own. If I ran the music world, that and having an original Christmas song would be requirements. So No Doubt would be top of the class on both counts.


David Nilsen and I Contemplate the Ferocious Brilliance of Garbage in the 90s

Continuing our discussion of 90s classic albums, today David Nilsen and I publish our debate over which of Garbage’s first two albums is, in fact, superior.

Katy Goodwin-Bates: I have always thought of Garbage’s first album as an old favourite but, on closer examination, it would appear that this was based on four songs. Four banging songs, obviously, but still, I was surprised by how many of the tracks I listened to again and thought, “I have no recollection of this whatsoever.” Which is weird and, frankly, a bit upsetting.

David Nilsen: My own summary verdict: I adore the first album, while Version 2.0 is not nearly as good as I remember.

KGB: Interesting. I had the exact opposite feeling.

DN: Well, these should prove to be amusing debates then.

KGB: I still think Supervixen is an astounding opening to an album.

DN: Agree. Also—and this is true of the entire album—this is exactly what 1995 sounded like. When that track opens, you know when this album came out even if you’ve never heard it before.

KGB: Absolutely. In the case of the rockier songs here, I think that’s a great thing. It’s all the dancey ones that sound like someone made them on an app where I think that becomes less of a compliment. I love how dirty and menacing Supervixen is. I was obsessed with this song and Vow when I first had this album for those reasons.

The word “scuzzy” has just popped into my head and now I think this is the perfect description for the first album.

DN: When I jotted down notes while listening to this, next to Vow all I wrote was “Don’t piss off Shirley.”

Which I feel is accurate, and true to what you’re saying.

KGB: That song is really bound up in my memory with my angry teenager phase. It was the soundtrack to many a revenge fantasy against a boy who hadn’t actually done anything wrong. Now I just like singing along to it and scaring anyone who stops next to me at traffic lights.

I also still adore Only Happy When It Rains and listen to it at least once a week. It’s so grumpy and yet also witty.

DN: Yes. That is one of my favorite 90s songs.

Want to feel old? Shirley Manson turned 50 last summer.

KGB: No.

I mean, that makes Shirley sound kind of old. I feel quite youthful in comparison.


DN: Track 2, Queer, has not aged very well. Musically it’s…whatever…but the daring use of “queer” just comes off awkward and appropriative now.

KGB: Agreed. It’s a weird song. I always thought this. Especially when it goes from “queer” to “lame,” which seems very inappropriate.

DN: Definitely. Unless she was trying to counteract disability-shaming? But I don’t think so, and even if she was, still not appropriate for her to do so that way.

KGB: I am listening to the album now and have reached the throwaway dance songs.

DN: Going back to Only Happy When It Rains, I love the “deep depression” line, because that was so true for me as a teenager. I was in love with my own angst and despair and “woe is me” Romeo & Juliet bullshit. Being depressed made you more interesting.

KGB: Yes! It fits within my whole mentality of reading Wuthering Heights and thinking it was a blueprint for how a relationship should be. Give me angst! Give me drama! Thank god we didn’t have Facebook back then.

DN: Absolutely. Edgar Allen Poe was my spirit animal.

KGB: I feel like we would have got on in the 90s.

DN: And you’re right about Facebook. God. Can you imagine?

How humiliating.

Which means our kids are screwed.

KGB: It will have blown over by the time they’re old enough. That’s my dream.

DN: That or the leaders of our two mighty countries will have blown up the entire world.

KGB: You really are only happy when it rains. Seriously, what is with all these rubbish songs? As Heaven is Wide? Not My Idea? That one, in particular, just sounds really childish.

Both of those are very forgettable.

Like, come on Shirls, if it’s not your idea of a good time, come up with a practical solution. Read a book. Practise glaring at people. As my dad liked to say when I was a kid, “only boring people get bored.”

My dad is very profound.

DN: Indeed

But then we get Vow, and then Stupid Girl.

I just found out Joe Strummer had something to do with that song.

KGB: You’ve just missed A Stroke of Luck, which I am listening to right now and have forgotten already.

Joe Strummer? What? I love him.

Wait, does this song have a good chorus?

Oh. No. It doesn’t. Ignore me.

DN: He apparently co-wrote it or something. Looking it up now.

KGB: I like the opening of Stroke of Luck. The lead in. But the rest is disappointing.

It’s very gloomy. I want rage, not abject misery.

DN: Oh, I was down for abject misery.

KGB: Only if it involves snarling and loud riffs.

Not all this mopey noodling.

DN: We will have to diverge on that.

This entire album sounds like it was used on a soundtrack to all of the darker teen movies of the 90s.

KGB: Actually listening to this song is reminding me of a terrible poem I wrote when I was about 14 which I now think I may have just plagiarised from this chorus.

DN: I am certain these songs were on the ScreamLast Summer, or American Werewolfmovies or something.

I plagiarized my earliest poems in sixth grade from my sister’s diary, which I read while she was away at college.

My Lover’s Box is very good. I dig that song.

KGB: Yes. It is pleasingly riffy. I had forgotten about this one but it definitely gives the back end of the album a lift after Dog New Tricks, which I just do not think is good.

DN: I love Milk too. The album ends on a solid note.

Overall, I have few complaints about this album. For a first record, this is solid. It is very much of its era, which means parts of it are awesome and some parts haven’t aged well. But this is my favorite of theirs.

KGB: I think Supervixen, Only Happy, Vow, and Stupid Girl are cracking, and still sound as appealing to me as they did when I was a moody teenager. There’s just too much filler in between and too much of it has an annoying computer-programmed beat behind it. It frustrates me that all the songs aren’t as good as Vow. Obviously not all songs can be as good as Vow. That would be an overwhelming world to live in.

DN: But you don’t feel that way about Version 2.0? Because that computer programmed, awkward early techno dance shit is all over that album.

KGB: What’s weird about this is that I don’t mind it on 2.0, which obviously makes no sense. I think I’d dismissed the album and then, returning to it last week, it was like seeing someone I used to know who I thought was really annoying but was actually surprisingly cool.

DN2.0 almost sounds more 1998 than the self-titled sounds 1995. And 1998 was not the best year for popular music.

With both of these, I forgot how in love we all were with trip hop in the mid to late 90s. Hip hop hadn’t yet completely taken over pop to where now everything has a strong beat. The early forays into that were sometimes magical and sometimes hella awkward.

KGB: Here’s what’s weird: when Version 2.0 came out, I didn’t like it. More than that: I felt personally let down. I wanted the angst and the scuzziness and the snarling, and all the pounding dance beats disappointed me in a major way. But listening to it again after all this time, I love it. There’s still menace (like in Push It) and that overblown psycho persona with a hint of humour (When I Grow Up), and the whole thing appeals to my 34 year old self a lot more than it did to the teenager who just wanted 12 more songs that sounded like Vow.

DN: I could be on board with that from a philosophical standpoint, but the dance beats sound sooooo dated.

Temptation is fine, but forgettable.

Paranoid is solid. Obviously it was one of their hits.

I love the line in When I Grow up about how she’ll be stable eventually. That goes back to what we were saying on the first album about romanticizing depression and angst.

Which also applies some to Medication.

KGB: I feel like that whole persona of instability reveals itself as something a bit more light-hearted on this album; in Paranoid and Grow Up there’s more than a hint of self-mocking, which I enjoy now that I have learned to laugh at my adolescent histrionics (ok fine I was still like that at 23 but whatever). Medication is quite brilliant, I think.

I don’t love Dumb or Hammering in My Head. They’re a bit too boom-boom-boom for my liking. Where do you stand on You Look So Fine? I have very much enjoyed rediscovering that song.

DN: Hammering in My Head is so 1998. This entire album is like a sonic distillation of what 1998 sounded like.

KGB: You are such a hater. I think it has aged well. Although I live in a country whose government is basically trying to pretend it’s 1979 so my perception is probably warped.

DN: I really like You Look So Fine. I especially like the opening. This song makes me think of my sophomore and junior years of high school. I was good friends with a girl who was a Garbage fan too. I have bittersweet memories of those years. Our friendship was super close for a while, and exploded in spectacular and painful fashion.

KGB: That sounds like a Garbage song in itself.

DN: Good point

I should clarify that I don’t hate Version 2.0. I just don’t think it’s aged as well as the first album did. I feel like I could play the self-titled for someone today who had no context for the album, and they would like it, or at least accept it. If I played Version 2.0, I would be making apologies and explanations for it.

KGB: I like that our viewpoints diverge on this so much. And I’m glad that having these conversations brought me back to Version 2.0because it’s been like catching up with an old friend. While the self-titled album was a bit of a letdown for me, listening to this again (and again and again) has been fun. I’ve had it playing at work all week and people who have come into my classroom have pricked their ears and nodded along. I’m basically performing a public service.

I don’t think it’s perfect or anything but I do like it. A lot. And, as with most of the other bands we’ve talked about, I kind of lost track of Garbage since this album and it’s made me want to rectify that.

DN: I wonder how their more recent stuff sounds. I have totally lost track them as well.

Shirley Manson is 50. That is so weird.

I’m a little afraid to listen to the more recent stuff. What if it sucks?

KGB: Isn’t it weird how we seem to have done that with these bands we liked so much in the 90s? I wonder if it’s a natural byproduct of growing up. Although by the early 2000s I was listening to The Clash and Blondie, so it was a weird kind of progress.

I dare you to listen to it.

DN: Agreed. I moved on to The Smiths and The Cure and all those other 80s bands.

KGB: I have just checked what post-1998 Garbage I have on my iPod. It’s one song. But it’s Why Do You Love Me? which is freaking awesome.

DN: I suppose I’ll have to listen.

KGB: Seriously, do. I had forgotten how great it is. It’s like all the bits of Garbage we liked, delightfully mixed into one stone cold banger.

DN: “Stone cold banger” is one of the most British things you’ve ever said.

KGB: That is genuinely how I talk.

DN: Which is perfectly fine. It was no insult. It was just very British.

KGB: I didn’t take it as an insult. I just wondered if you thought I was amping up the Britishness like a villain in an action movie. When I have been in the U.S. I have honestly been asked several times if I know the queen. These stereotypes can hurt.

I don’t know her, by the way.

DN: That happens here from state to state. “Oh, my sister lives in Ohio. Maybe you’ve met?” I mean, there are 12,000,000 people in this state, and it takes four hours to drive across it, but sure, maybe we’ve met.

KGB: Why are people so stupid?

And why are these people allowed to vote? That’s the big question.

DN: People genuinely do not think. I don’t mean that as shorthand for people being annoying. I mean it seriously: people do not stop and engage any level of mental processing before speaking. Or after speaking.

KGB: What a world!

DN: For real.


An Oasis-Related Transatlantic Incident: David Nilsen and I Dissect What’s the Story? and Definitely Maybe

Sensible music fans, this will horrify you, but there are apparently some people who think that What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) is a better album than Definitely Maybe. I know, it’s bizarre. I don’t understand it either. For more details of this frankly appalling dispute, read on as David Nilsen and I return to the ’90s to argue about Oasis’ first two albums.

Katy Goodwin-Bates: I can’t overstate just how ubiquitous Oasis’s music remains over here. Our radio system is far less genre/geography based than yours, but it is literally impossible to turn on an indie or 90s station without hearing pretty much all of the first two albums. Without even trying to, I hear at least three Oasis songs a day. As long as they’re good ones, I have no issue.

For me, Definitely Maybe is the quintessential 90s album. Britpop was a hugely formative experience for me and Definitely Maybe was the record that kick-started my love of guitar music. I still remember buying the cassette in my local independent record store; I think this is part of why it’s still so familiar and comforting to me, almost in its entirety, because I experienced it in a medium that made it really inconvenient to skip tracks. When it comes on my iPod now, if the shuffle setting is on, it just feels wrong.

David Nilsen: I found Oasis, like many Americans, on their second album. Wonderwall and Champagne Supernova were some kind of melancholic daydreams that took over our radio waves and made us all believe the Gallagher brothers were sweet, sensitive romantics and not brawling, petty hooligans. I fell hard for Oasis, reading every Rolling Stonearticle I could find and going onto chat rooms (remember chat rooms?) to discuss my love for the band. I even read a weird memoir written by their bodyguard, which gives someone uninitiated an indication of how huge this band was, if even their hired muscle got a book deal.

I would put on What’s the Story, Morning Glory?on tape and sing along, imagining I was Liam, though I always liked Noel more. That all of England fell under their trance helped elevate my opinion of England as a whole when I was 16.

Anything not American was exotic in my small little Midwestern high school, so even though Oasis was doing pretty basic rock (albeit doing it well), and even though they were possibly the biggest band in the world at the time, it still felt hip and in-the-know to like them then. Of course, I was convinced no one liked them as much as I did.

KGB: But it wasn’t all of England! Do you not know of the Great Blur versus Oasis War of 1995? This was a major conflict. It was lucky teenagers don’t have automatic weapons.

DN: Oh, yes. And it made me like Blur less, even though I didn’t really like them all that much anyway (I was going to put an axe through our television if I heard one more commercial with their Woohoo sample).

But still – Oasis was impossibly huge there, right? I remember reading almost 5% of the population tried to buy tickets to their Slane Castle show.

KGB: It was very dramatic, epitomising as it did some of the issues that persist in British society even 20 years later: north vs south, working class vs middle class. Just to be contrary, I am southern and middle class, but I fell hard for Oasis like you; it felt weirdly rebellious to opt for the snarly Parka-wearing Mancunians rather than mockney Damon Albarn. I don’t know why it never occurred to any of us that you could like both bands.

Oasis were and still are huge; I have already heard three Oasis songs on the radio today and it’s only 3.30 p.m.

I think because they were never particularly original in the first place, a lot of their music hasn’t dated.

DN: Sure, that’s a good point. It is so weird to me they’re still big there. They more or less don’t even exist here anymore. Who’s even in the band at this point?

KGB: Their possible reunion is mentioned in the media at least once a week here. They split a few years ago and both Liam and Noel have done their own thing (with nowhere near as much success).

DN: I wonder how much more damaging their uncouthness would be if they were first coming out today, with social media being what it is. It’s hard to picture them getting away with saying they hope Damon from Blur dies of AIDS and surviving that commercially. As they did in the 90s.

On the other hand, if your fan base is white bros with attitudes and expendable income, maybe you survive it just fine.

KGB: I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just because I’m not 13 any more, but exaggerated swagger impresses me a lot less now than it did back in the day. I imagine the warring brothers narrative would still engage people though. Maybe they’d fight with each other on Twitter. Noel Gallagher, incidentally, is something of a national treasure now. He’s very funny and a lot more articulate than his 1990s persona.

DN: He always struck me as the brains and polish of that operation. He was always my favorite. How about I offer a few unpopular opinions to get us started, and you can yell at me?

KGB: Yes, please.

DN: Unpopular Opinion No. 1: What’s the Story, Morning Glory? is an objectively better album than Definitely Maybe.

KGB: That’s just silly.

Definitely Maybe is a glorious, snarling statement of intent. It’s a wild night out of reckless abandon. What’s the Story is the following night, when you go out again, trying to replicate the excitement, but end up throwing up on your shoes by 7 p.m. and tucked up in bed earlier than on a school night.

DN: You are so wrong right now.

KGB: I am very pleased with this metaphor.

DNDefinitely Maybe feels like they had idealized shitty American dive bars in St. Louis or something and never realized the appeal of those bars is only intended to be ironic. Liam’s voice is whiny as hell on the entire album, and he tries to affect this southern twang that makes no sense and, we discover on the next album, is not his actual singing voice.

And there’s hardly a single to sing along to on the entire album, with the exception of Live Forever.

I get the idea of it being grittier and dirtier and all that, but the next album really does feel better from a songwriting and delivery standpoint.

KGB: What! That is outrageous. Supersonic is a great song. Also, try telling a British dude in his 30s that you can’t sing along to Cigarettes and Alcohol. I don’t think they ever recorded another song as good as Slide Away.

I also think Definitely Maybe is perfectly structured. Any other band would be laughed out of the NME for starting their debut with a song called Rock n Roll Star, but here it’s a perfect mission statement. The album peaks in noisiness from tracks 5-8 and then lovely Slide Away is sandwiched between the mundane silliness of Digsy’s Dinner (“lasaaaaaaagnaaaaahhh”) and Married with Children, which I always really liked.

DN: Married with Children is good.

And yes, opening your debut album with a song called Rock n Roll Star could not be a more Gallagher brothers thing to do. But they sound like they desperately want the worst American fans of the Rolling Stones to like them. For being a band that steals Beatles lyrics every other song, they sure seem to love 1990-era Stones.

KGB: I don’t think Oasis were ever about the lyrics though. For one thing, they’re generally very silly. Case in point; “I’m feeling supersonic/give me gin and tonic/ you can have it all but how much do you want it?” Want what? The gin and tonic? Also I refuse to believe Liam Gallagher was a G & T drinker. It’s far too refined.

But if you’re critiquing their lack of originality, how can you justify preferring What’s the Storywhen it’s just a less good version of Definitely Maybe?

DN: He seems like he could drink the worst of dry London gin on the rare nights he’s feeling reflective and masochistic. But yeah, not very often, and never good gin.

But What’s the Story wasn’t a version of Definitely Maybe at all. It doesn’t try to be. For one album, they matured into pop songwriters who could appeal to more than their street-level bar crowd. Liam abandons his silly twang, Noel’s songwriting reaches its pinnacle, their production quality hit the perfect balance between the quasi-garage rock of Definitely Maybe and the lamely posh veneer of Be Here Now (though that still had a couple decent songs on it).

They’re not writing at all the same kinds of songs on their second album.

KGB: I am in strong disagreement now. Some of the songs on What’s the Story are just rubbish; Hey Now, for example, serves no purpose and says nothing. If starting an album with Rock n Roll Star was a cliche, beginning the next one with a song called Hello is just ridiculous, and I imagine they regret sampling Gary Glitter now.

Part of the problem with the 2nd album, for me, is its ubiquity. Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back were and still are SO overplayed here, they basically mean nothing to me any more. I do think What’s the Story follows the template of Definitely Maybe; storming starts, anthems like Live Forever and Wonderwall a few tracks in, then big, long ballads near the end in the form of Slide Away and Champagne Supernova. I’d also draw a clear line between Digsy’s Dinner and She’s Electric. Though I’ll grant you She’s Electric would have been right at home on Definitely Maybe.

I think What’s the Story is just too overblown. There are so many songs on there which follow the formula of the previous album but just aren’t as good.

Melodically, I’ll grant that What’s the Story is better.

But lyrically, I’m sticking with its older brother.

DN: I wonder how much of this disagreement is something difficult to bridge based on our different experiences of coming to the band, which spring directly from you growing up in England and I in America.

KGB: This is very probably the case.

Also, with Oasis making it big over there with the second album maybe it’s inevitable. I think music fans usually have the most affection for the album they came to first in a band’s oeuvre.

DN: Okay, Unpopular Opinion No. 2: All of that being said, neither of these albums holds up as well as I remembered.

KGB: Expand.

DN: Well, I’ve expressed my thoughts on Definitely Maybe. But even with Morning Glory, which I prefer, it feels less substantial than it did back then. This seems like a classic case of a band being hurt by their own popularity. As we’ve said, they were just such a big deal. I adored them. And now, while there are some fun songs, it’s hard to listen and remember how this completely captured the imagination of the English-speaking world. It’s fine. It’s good. It’s not world-breaking. And that comes with a letdown that isn’t really the band or album’s fault, I suppose. Continuing the metaphor you started with the night of wild drinking, it’s like remembering one of those legendary nights twenty years later when you have a kid and you’re married and you have actual things you’re trying to accomplish in life. Yeah, it can still bring a smile to your face to remember it, but do you really want to go back and be that silly and reckless? Maybe now and then, if the moment and reason is perfect, but you’ll probably end up feeling shitty about yourself afterward, like you were trying to recapture something that’s lost.

KGB: I think part of the issue is that there wasn’t much else for the discerning indie music fan in the mid 1990s. Britpop started with Oasis, and that opened the floodgates for a lot of bands that, I think, have stood the test of time more successfully, like Pulp. The album Blur bought out in opposition to What’s the Story was pretty terrible, but their work after that was interesting (with the exception of the Wahoo song as you have mentioned). What’s the Story was a real product of its time, especially here, with awful Lad Culture and the European football championships in ’96; for a lot of people, it holds up just through nostalgia.

I saw Oasis play in 2005 and remember nothing about it (not even through drinking because I never drink at festivals). That tells me a lot about their long-term impact on my life.

I saw The Cure at the same festival and remember every second, by contrast.

DN: Even if you disagree, do you at least hear the whininess and faux-country twang in Liam’s voice in the early stuff?

KGB: Oh completely. I think Liam might be the source of my theory about male singers not actually needing to be able to sing. You must have noticed the “shi-yin-ah” bit that seems to be in about half their songs?

That’s always really annoyed me.

DN: I mean, there are a few female leads who can’t sing, but are still wonderful. Emily Haines has no range at all, but I will hear nothing bad about Metric. Also, Dolores O’Riordan secretly cannot sing at all, but did that matter?

KGB: I love Metric! I always really like her voice. Maybe because it didn’t make me feel inadequate.

DN: Right. She’s doesn’t need to be able to sing better than she does. She can’t hit anything high, and mostly doesn’t try to, but her voice is adequate and perfect to their sound. I love her.

Dolores flatly cannot sing. But I adore the early Cranberries stuff with ardent passion.

KGB: But I guarantee nobody else I know has heard of Metric, while nobody in the English-speaking world can be unaware of Oasis. Sigh.

DN: Right?

KGB: Absurd.

DN: There is a tremendous amount of the Oasis story that reeks of male mediocrity getting ushered into the spotlight because it is brash enough.

KGB: Amen to that.

DN: Is there anything else about Oasis to discuss? Are we still friends?

KGB: I feel like we’ve reached a conclusion. To our relationship.