Over Our Heads: King’s X’s ‘Gretchen Goes to Nebraska’ Turns 30

Why the celebrated, soulful art-metal trio’s sophomore classic remains the best of their career

King’s X, 1989

Few post-1970s American rock bands are as consistent, distinctive and eclectic as King’s X. Formed forty years ago as a quartet called The Edge—and then retitled Sneak Preview once rhythm guitarist Dan McCollam quit—the still-standing trio of guitarist/vocalist Ty Tabor, drummer/vocalist Jerry Gaskill, and lead vocalist/bassist Dug Pinnick finally settled on the moniker King’s X by the late ‘80s.

Although they’ve not put out a studio effort in over a decade, their characteristic concoctions of funk, soul, progressive metal, gospel, blues, and more have yielded some truly classic collections between 1988 and 2008. As such, it’s no wonder why King’s X remains beloved and influential today.  

Arguably the strongest and most revered album in their catalogue is their sophomore LP, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. Released in June 1989—a little more than a year after their then-underappreciated debut full-length, Out of the Silent Planet—it improved upon its predecessor in nearly every way (chiefly, better songwriting and far more varied styles and instrumentation). Like that record, this one was inspired by literary fiction; specifically, a short story by Gaskill. In addition, its Aqualung-esque periodic critiques of aspects of Christianity (such as televangelism and the historical practice of burning people who were deemed a threat to the faith) enhance its overtly pleasing sounds with plenty of thought-provoking sentiments. As for its name, Gaskill told Dave Caughey in a 1990 interview with Cross Rhythms that it came from one of their roadies jokingly offering it as a suggestion.

 

VIDEO: King’s X – “Over My Head”

After it came out, King’s X naturally toured heavily (including a filmed stint at England’s Astoria that was then released in 2008 as Gretchen Goes to London). Also, its second and third tracks—“Over My Head” and “Summerland,” respectively—received music videos. Despite only reaching #123 on the Billboard 200, it’s garnered countless critical and casual accolades over the years. In particular, publications like Rolling Stone, Q, Kerrang!, and Allmusic, as well as genre icons like guitarist Jim Martin (Faith No More) and Devin Townsend, have showered it with praise.  Thirty years later, does Gretchen Goes to Nebraska still represent the pinnacle of what Pinnick and company could do? You bet it does.

Seeing as how King’s X is a hard rock/metal group at heart, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska needs to satisfy that urge first and foremost. Fortunately, it does so immediately via opener “Out of the Silent Planet.” (Yes, they took a page from icons like The Doors and Led Zeppelin and didn’t put the song on the album of the same name.) Tabor’s electric riffs are modest yet quite mesmerizingly morose, and the rhythmic duo of Pinnick and Gaskill stay lively and aggressive without getting too in-your-face. Of course, King’s X also instantly prove ambitious and sundry here since they juxtapose that heavy foundation with poppy melodies and downright angelic harmonies. It’s a stunning way to start and a chief example of why King’s X was so accomplished so early on.

 

VIDEO:  King’s X – “Summerland

 

A few other pieces also masterfully scratch that fierce itch. The following entry, “Over My Head,” is addicting and stylishly hostile, with Pinnick crooning powerfully (as if he’s leading a congregation) around bitingly hip guitarwork, playful handclaps, high-pitched piano notes, and warm backing chants. In contrast, “Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something” is more peculiar and fun—including sly voiceovers from Pinnick—while “I’ll Never Be the Same” is more commercially viable without sacrificing any of the trio’s fortes. Near the end of the LP, “Fall on Me” finds Gaskill doing some really sophisticated syncopation amid ethereal transitions, “Pleiades” adds an almost Western rugged dustiness to their dichotomies, and the dense “Send a Message” once again capitalizes on Pinnick’s panicked vocal persona. Unquestionably, the apex of the entire sequence is the aforementioned “Summerland.” From its captivating central acoustic guitar arpeggio and heavenly chorus, to its impassioned peaks of intensity and general dynamic dexterity, it’s a masterpiece unto itself.

King’s X Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, Megaforce/Atlantic 1989

That said, the record houses a couple of outstanding majorly soft passages, too. For instance, the earthly folk rock lusciousness of “The Difference (In the Garden of St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill)” channels classic artists like CSNY (and their associated acts) with ease. Likewise, closer “The Burning Down” doubles down on the trio’s stacked singing prowess over irregular beats and otherworldly/organic sounds. It also allows Tabor to display his aptitude as the main singer. Yes, many of the other tunes also showcase these softer traits, but the fact that this duo focuses completely on them simultaneously makes them stand out and makes the LP more striving and sundry as a whole.

Although King’s X have produced several triumphs over the years—any one of which could justifiably rank as a fan’s favorite—Gretchen Goes to Nebraska remains remarkably representative, steady and pleasing. Not only is their songwriting and playing top-notch here, but their ability to seamlessly and subtly mix and match genres within the same song is quite special. It’s one of those rare albums that feels like a best-of because every track is a highlight, and it hasn’t lost any of its relevancy or enjoyment since it came out. Thirty years later, that’s the greatest legacy it could leave.

 

STREAMING TRACK: King’s X – Out of the Silent Planet from Gretchen Goes to Nebraska

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

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