Big Star returns to its own party, 30 years too late.
"You get what you deserve," Big Star's Alex Chilton once sang, and if he still believes that, he must think his admirers don't deserve much. In Space, their fourth studio album—30 years after the third—is a flimsy, slapdash piece of work, a cynical imitation of their own style. It's a throwaway from a band to whom craft was once everything, with just enough flashes of their old grace and dark beauty that it hurts even more to hear.
The original incarnation of Big Star produced three extraordinary albums between 1972 and 1975; the first two are the pillars of American power pop, and the third is a shadowy, chaotic, sui generis marvel. At first, the band was a collaboration between Chilton (who'd previously been the teenage lead singer of the Box Tops), his fellow singer-guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Big Star wasn't meant to be an ironic band name, and their debut #1 Record wasn't meant to be an ironic title: It was a leap for the big time, a sculpted guitar-pop record. It got great reviews, but, as Rob Jovanovic details in his new book Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop, the album sold fewer than 4,000 copies due to distribution problems.
Radio City was their even better follow-up—another hopeful title, another set of hopes dashed in the marketplace. Like #1 Record, its songs evoke a sweet kind of ache, a moment of blissful romantic torment faced down with a strong drink and a 12-string guitar. By the time of Big Star's final, blurry, drug-and-alcohol-fueled sessions, the band was reduced to Chilton, Stephens, and whoever else happened to be around.
Their third album was abandoned rather than completed; it's variously known as Third, Sister Lovers, and Beale St. Green, and it's been released with at least four different track listings. It's the sound of a breakdown in the studio—the mix is a thicket of out-of-control instruments (even the string section is on a bender), the arrangements keep threatening to pass out, and Chilton sings like he's barely hanging on. What keeps it from crashing are the songs; the words are mostly about disconnection and dissolution, but there's a sense of hope in "Take Care" and "Thank You Friends" for which Chilton obviously fought hard.
After the third album, Chilton drifted—making occasional tossed-off records (some of them pretty good, especially 1987's High Priest), playing inconsistent shows, and spending a few years as a dishwasher in New Orleans. In the meantime, Big Star finally caught on. Their records were reissued and became coffeehouse standards; R.E.M. cited them as heroes; their songs were covered by the Bangles, Jeff Buckley, This Mortal Coil, Elliott Smith, the Replacements, Cheap Trick (whose version of "In the Street" became the theme song of That '70s Show), and dozens of other bands. A new wave of power-pop bands modeled their sound more or less explicitly on Big Star's: Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, Gigolo Aunts.
Chilton surprised everyone by reuniting Big Star for a 1993 concert. The lineup for that show was Chilton, Jody Stephens, and two of their disciples from the Posies, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. It was supposed to be a one-off appearance, but they've played around 40 more shows since then. Andy Hummel hasn't been involved, although he notes in this interview that he'd be into playing with Big Star again if, "Everyone was a little excited about it, and was willing to work real hard at home, and we could get together to practice once a month or so." As it turns out, that's exactly the opposite of the way In Space was made.
Reportedly, one of the conditions that the band set for recording a new album was that they had to be able to write it in the studio. There are pop bands that specialize in spontaneous songwriting and first-take recordings, but Big Star was never really one of them—even their third album was thoroughly demoed in advance. Composing and recording In Space on the spot meant that they didn't really have to put much effort or forethought into it.
About half of In Space sounds like Big Star, or rather like a decent imitation of the first two Big Star albums: the radiant descending harmonies, the ringing chords, Stephens' somersaulting drum flourishes. (Nothing here tries to fake the unsettling arrangements or despairing undertow of the third album.) The opening "Dony"could've passed for decent filler on #1 Record, at least until Chilton makes way for a cheese-ball sax solo. Most of the evocations of Big Star's early years are actually sung by Chilton's band mates—"February's Quiet" with Stephens taking the lead, is the most convincing approximation of the old days.
The parts of In Space that don't retread familiar territory, though, are a mess, and mostly Chilton's mess. They amount to a bunch of gestures that say, "You want a nostalgia act? Here's your damn nostalgia act." There's a cover of the Olympics' 1966 R&B obscurity "Mine Exclusively" (which Chilton also recorded with Teenage Fanclub more than a decade ago), a heartless disco pastiche called "Love Revolution," an autopilot 12-bar surf-blues with the winking title "A Whole New Thing," and a ridiculous, shaky baroque instrumental, "Aria Largo." The album culminates, or rather collapses, with a half-assed studio jam, "Makeover." There's no sense of invention or emotional depth here, nothing that moves the Big Star franchise past picked-over territory.
In Jovanovic's biography of Big Star, Stringfellow comments that he thinks Chilton has "made a careful study in being neutral, a philosophy he's adapted [sic] to save his life." Certainly, it seems like Chilton's made it a point over the last few decades never to invest too much of himself into his work, and if "neutrality" has saved his life, it's hard to begrudge him. But when he's returning to the name he once used for some of America's richest, most emotionally charged pop, that aggressive indifference translates into contempt for his audience, and for his own powers as a songwriter.
Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.