My Own Private Solstice: Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary at 25

The legendary Seattle group’s debut LP reinvented guitar rock for the second half of the 1990s

Illustration by StryderT9TR

Two of the geekiest, and most influential, modern rock records came out on the same day in May of 1994: two albums that could not be seemingly further apart on the rock spectrum.

Weezer’s Blue Album features three chord logic and references to Buddy Holly, becoming a worldwide sensation launching a new era of unabashed power pop, the other groundbreaker was much more complex, its references ran more to the Beowulf end of the spectrum (one of its songs titled “Grendel”) — where one alternates between gleefully earnest and youthful snark, the other basks in the poetic and obtuse. Meanwhile the fervor for Diary, Sunny Day Real Estate’s debut on Sub Pop, was considerably more muted. It was arguably ultimately no less influential — but on whom. The easy answer would appear to be on the endless slew of melodic pop bands who by 2006 would overrun the Billboard alternative charts — from the ethereal power punk of Jimmy Eat World to the near-Broadway pomposity of My Chemical Romance to the brooding screams of Taking Back Sunday — that would all be described by one tiny, innocent enough, but charged and deceptively complicated word — {heaved sigh} “emo.” However, I’d argue (and will do so, maybe too vehemently) that, while they may have fans in all of these groups, their classification here is just off, if only by a hair’s breadth.  

Emo, as a musical population, has, fair or not, taken on a visceral meaning in a manner few subgenres have outside of “disco.” And while it might seem defensive to argue that SDRE transcends any file-under-”emo” status, it’s not that — it’s more that, as with any groundbreaking record, it’s more complicated. Whatever the reason, the band and label are intertwined, and while Sunny Day certainly did not invent emotional hardcore (Rites of Spring, Embrace, etc., were rocking hard and morose by the mid-1980s), they are generally credited at the helm of its second wave. And it’s impossible to argue that they are neither emotional nor hardcore.

Diary on cassette

It may simply be that the band’s designation, while mostly meant reverently (although in the case of South Park that’s a bit more ambiguous, but we’ll get to that), minimalizes the scope of this band, and loops them in with a legacy of bands that truly just does not fit. Sunny Day Real Estate, and its 1994 debut, exist on an island of its own, with its abundance of admittedly pretentious AF numerical song titles, singer Jeremy Enigk’s otherwordly wispy, yet somehow still thunderous vocals, and a torrent of guitar-driven melodies which owed as much to prog rock and speed metal as it did to hardcore and punk.

If you’ll indulge me in a personal story, in Spring of 1994, I was a college student working at a Media Play (remember those?) in Buffalo, New York, when the most gravelly voice, a stoned Tom Waits after 10 coffees and 30 cigarettes kind of voice, asked over the phone, with absolute assurance, for a CD by a band I was sure we would not have. To my shock, the system showed we had one unit, but I was positive I would not find it. Amazed, I was happy to tell our friendly, if low-registered, customer that we had that lone copy and upon spying its cover with its bizarre tableau of Fisher Price little people in a peril most mundane, I was intrigued. A few weeks later, I found the album in my college radio’s library and upon pre-listen to its first track (and single) “Seven” and its oceanic waves of riffery, I couldn’t quite parse the lyrics, something about “December’s tragic drive when time is poetry,” but fell in instant love with whatever Enigk and the rest of the band was offering, about as hard and fast as any album and it was my most worn out record of that year. The word “emo” would not even enter my vocabulary until the following year, when now working at an indie shop that specialized in hardcore, and would be informed that Sunny Day Real Estate were in fact this musical style called “emocore” (this was maybe a minute before the shortening to “emo” would truly start to take on savage undercurrents and/or elicit groans).

So, this band has always existed in my mind outside of the word most associated with it, but they cannot escape it. In any case, when South Park dedicated the 2013 episode “Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Poser” to emo zombies, while the show cited a smorgasbord of bands, it was “Seven” playing on the radio that revealed a kid had “turned,” become one of them, emo. It’s entrenched, and it may prove (and has proved) well impossible to remove the emo tag from SDRE, and outside of our often-too-finely-held rock pretensions, it does not really matter. I should let it go. Enigk himself has, telling AV Club’s David Pemberton in 2016 that while he does not think labels like “Godfather of Emo” fit and that he simply considered their music essentially “punk,” just a different branch, after showing up on “Top Emo Albums” lists and South Park, “yep, we may as well embrace it.”

 

 

But I’m weak and I’ll bite. It’s post-hardcore. It just is. Sunny Day Real Estate fits more neatly into that close cousin (but one in more jukebox-induced barfights) of emo. Their complicated rhythms and massive mood swings pull from diverse acts like Television, Genesis and Mission of Burma (and more immediately from Fugazi, Jawbox and Quicksand) and of course they didn’t sprout bud-like (or Athena-like) from first wave emo bands like Rites of Spring.

To dive into the album, we can look at one defining distinction from their would-be ‘00s emo offspring. Those acts would find purchase on alternative (and even pop) radio to a large degree; the radio edit of “Seven” is one Frankenstein’s monster of a single and partly reveals why they would never, could never be much of a radio band. Diary, while it was Sub Pop’s second best-seller at the time, did not reach the Billboard Top 200, nor any song show up at anything more than college airplay. “Seven” is one hell of an earworm, but it’s custom for its five minutes plus, and any trims ring false and sound, well, awful. The radio edit of “Seven” is just terrible.    

“In Circles,” both the album’s second track and second single, is actually where the album begins to become more of a complete canvas, a story unto itself. Even though, given the numerical nature of many of the tracks explains their place in another order, which in turn betrays the fact that this album was never created as one entity, the album relates one consistent story as one track flows seamlessly into the next, from the insistent pleading of “The Blankets Were The Stairs” to the Pixies-esque loud-quiet-loud of “48” to the twin lullabies of “Grendel” and “Sometimes” that close the record. That it’s hard to pick out one song from another may sound like an insult, but it’s really not. After opening thunderously with “Seven,” Diary’s charm lies in its weaved tapestry — its vision is just that beautiful and coherent through to its final frame.  

Sunny Day Real Estate Diary, Sub Pop 1994

Ironically (at least based on how I framed this article), we could very well argue that, while Diary helped re-define the genre, outside of maybe My Chemical Romance, the onslaught of mid-00s emo on the alternative charts owed more to Weezer’s power pop snark than to Sunny Day’s barrage of jagged riffs and violet lyrics. While you can certainly hear their influence in their immediate followers — bands like Kill Creek, Braid, and Edison, you can hear more echoes of Diary in the work of intricate indie rockers like TV On The Radio, Les Savy Fav, Bloc Party and MuteMath, than the breezy, bare, offerings of, say, a Panic! At The Disco or Fall Out Boy (and remove a layer of angst and you’re at Foster The People or WALK THE MOON… which is not really a knock because both are perfectly fine alt-pop bands).   

While contemporaries lumped into 2nd wave emo like The Promise Ring and The Get Up Kids evolved into alt.country crooners by 2000, it’s strangely unsurprising that Sunny Day’s fourth album, The Rising Tide, went the other way and leaned further into their prog rock side. It’s also no particular shock that bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith formed the original rhythm section for perhaps the most accessible college alt-rock band of all time (Goldsmith left after one album, but Mendel’s still there). Enigk would alternately create some of the oddest and hardest to define gospel on Return of the Frog Queen and three more solo albums, and that ¾ of Sunny Day would pretty much go back to its roots in 2003 for an album under the name The Fire Theft.

Maybe after all this, the point of the matter is the whole angle of this article is ridiculous, as the point really should not be whether the “emo” label is good or apt to this spectacular, influential and important record. The point should probably be that as much as I love fitting (and retro-fitting) music into its proper place, and divining (and imparting) its location in the musical ecosystem… and I DO love this more than many human contacts outside wife, dad and a few others — labels are just, well, fucking silly (gee, how profound, wizard!). That “Top Emo Albums” list Enigk alluded to was Rolling Stones’ “40 Greatest Emo Albums Of All Time” and I didn’t need to look at it to know that Diary would be number one on that list, but I did, and it is, and that’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool to be the top album of any list. Emo does not define Diary, but many will still define Diary as emo — and that’s OK.

 

A quick epilogue (and with an album as grandiose as Diary, why shouldn’t this article contain an epilogue): In Fall of 1994, a 17-year-old male with a Green Hornet shirt and a hauntingly deep voice showed up on my college radio station of WRUB’s doorstep (well, we didn’t really have a doorstep, with our two offices in a nondescript brick hall, but you get it) to join our radio station. I trained him and after hitting it off and talking for a while after about our favorite bands, he revealed his favorite new band was Sunny Day Real Estate. By now, mine was too.    

 

 

Jason Thurston

Jason Thurston is an NYC-area based writer and editor who has contributed to All Music Guide, the late GetGlue, TV Guide, various Virgin entities, Muze, CMJ, Artvoice, DJ'd for Invisible Radio and co-operates his own pop-up TV site called Screen Scholars.Follow him @jasethurst44.

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