Best Wishes, Simpleton: 30 Years of Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk
Looking back on the classic album that destroyed the band but cemented its legacy
When I hear the words Spilt Milk, my gut reaction is guilt.
Thirty years ago, I was months out of high school, relieving the monotony of a day job at a discount clothing store in North Carolina with another part-time job at Camelot Music in the mall. For twelve hours a week, I endured the phrase “Y’all got that song that goes…” followed by the sonic butchering of some timely chart hit. In exchange, I got a 10 percent employee discount on the only thing that was giving me life. When Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk was released on February 9, 1993, I got the manager to stash a copy under the counter until my paycheck cleared. In those days, CDs were $14.99 and up, which amounted to half of what the store was paying me, after taxes.
Jellyfish’s debut album Bellybutton had hooked me two years and change earlier with power pop ditties like “Baby’s Coming Back,” “All I Want is Everything” and “The King is Half Undressed,” but spun a permanent web around me with the remaining keyboard-driven pop and velvety ballads. I love it. If the last remaining copy of Bellybutton on Earth was trapped on the second floor of a burning house, I would throw on a wet blanket, set my jaw, and push past the firemen saying, “Are you crazy? You can’t go in there.”
I don’t know what I was expecting from this follow-up, but when I finally secured funds and curled up with it and my headphones in the dark (the best way to listen to pop music), I was not prepared for Spilt Milk.
I was instantly enchanted by “Joining a Fan Club” – a predictably catchy guitar-pop masterpiece about the canonization of rock stars and pop-idolization of religious leaders. The same with “The Ghost at Number One,” a sibling song about how the intersection of rock stars’ self-destructive habits and the music industry’s business tactics all too often ends in tragedy, which then catapults the artist into greater fame in death.
The lyrics of Jellyfish songs launch them from great pop songs to musical poetry. Words snap together like candy-color Lego blocks. The phrases “chalk line dollar sign,” and “dialog swam from his pen like pollywogs” won’t ever fail to give me the chills.
But on my first listens, the opening track, “Hush,” a mostly-acapella lullaby, and “Sebrina, Paste, and Plato,” a lighter-than-clouds track about an elementary-school crush that could have been the theme song for a carousel, had me wondering what the hell was going on here. Even songs I anticipated being pure power pop veered into very different territory. “Bye, Bye, Bye” began as a vocal harmony and building drums, then at 30 seconds, turned into…a polka?
The album was obviously beautifully written and impeccably produced, but I couldn’t latch on, and I felt terrible about that. I wasn’t willing, however, to proclaim that I didn’t like Spilt Milk. I kept listening out of general devotion and a large dose of guilt.
Things finally clicked for me three years or so later, long after the band’s breakup. I saw that Spilt Milk was what I loved about Bellybutton, exploded and spooled out to its logical conclusion. I saw the quasi-concept album in the madness, the circus-like sounds over the funhouse-mirror imagery of broken relationships, disillusionment and cyclical family dysfunction. Strands of this DNA have shown up in Melanie Martinez’s cracked childhood lyrics and sad babydoll aesthetic of the last decade.
Spilt Milk’s bedtime lullaby kickoff and “Brighter Day” closing makes it the nighttime counterpart to XTC’s Skylarking, which starts with the bird-chirping gentle wake-up of “Summer’s Cauldron,” cycles through a metaphorical lifetime, and ends with the evening ritual of “Sacrificial Bonfire.” They both linger in the details of everyday lives and point the finger at religion as the culprit for any number of humanity’s issues, but XTC ultimately holds the little guy up as heroic (just barely), whereas the characters who inhabit Spilt Milk seem to haplessly trip over their own yearnings and desire to put others on pedestals. The Andys–Partridge and Sturmer–are the outsized ringmasters.
I’ve come to appreciate the sudden tone shifts of Milk, like when “All is Forgiven” builds to an angry crescendo – a wall of guitar and drums – that screeches to a halt before crashing into “Russian Hill,” one of the most laid-back Jellyfish songs. The array of instruments used on the album makes me imagine a dust-covered music shop in a picturesque valley in the Alps, run by a dusty, lovable old man. Andy Sturmer, Roger and Chris Manning, Jason Faulkner, Tim Smith and Eric Dover arrive (yes, yes, I know – but it’s my scenario and I want them all there) to buy up his vintage wonders – wind chimes! Harpsichord! Glockenspiel! It gives the album the feel of a chaotic miniature diorama where every splinter has been carefully arranged with tweezers.
Now, 30 years on, I’ve grown attached to Spilt Milk in a different way than Bellybutton. It’s this perfect creation whose gravitational pull destroyed its creator (the band, not the individuals – they’re fine and remain making stellar music) but it survives and, judging by the social media groups and YouTube videos extolling its virtues, still thrives. But I still have that remaining shred of guilt that I didn’t love it the first time I listened to it.
In the breathless hush of 4:34 a.m., I thank you, gentlemen, for 30 years of Spilt Milk.
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