What if you gave a classic album and nobody came?
We celebrate obscurity when it is applied, like a saintly halo, to dead folkies, earnest college town rock bands, and troubled, unshaven (sometimes dead) geniuses. But what if the under-appreciated, overlooked artist in question was actually quite successful and existed quite happily within the mainstream?
Which is all to say, we have overlooked the stately, subtle, shimmering, shocking, rocking depth and achievement of Collective Soul.
Yes, Collective Soul.
It may be worth considering the idea that Collective Soul, despite some seriously mammon-generating chart success, are one of the most underrated artists of the 1990s – maybe even the most underrated.
Without any doubt, I prefer their 1990’s output to the work of Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, heck, I’ll even say they had a better decade than U2 (then again, considering that U2’s 1990s studio output comprised of three albums, two of which were Zooropa and Pop, that might not be saying that much). Collective Soul’s 1990’s releases are studied and patient, truly old school headphone-an’-hash multi-dimensional hard rock, like Agents and Fortune produced by Eno and Lillywhite; and they are in a whole ‘nother league from other ‘90s chart acts, like the loathsome, shit-breathing Creed, and the riff-robbing Green Day (who are merely a Wikipedia entry on “Punk” hopped up on cocaine and made all shiny by some horny and rich producer).
Which is all to say that Collective Soul made some of the very best albums of the 1990s, records that sound absolutely profound and impactful today.
I want to direct your attention to one specific album, an album that must be considered one of the very best deep rock albums of the decade: It’s called Collective Soul, and it was the band’s second album, released in March of 1995 (important note: this Collective Soul is not to be confused with a 2009 album that the band released, also called Collective Soul—you are looking for the Collective Soul with the light blue cover, not the one with the bunny on it. Got it?).
This crunching, riffing, velvet and virile star-shine of an album seems to be the un-asked for cross between Bends-era Radiohead and stoner-metal pioneers Trouble. To me, that sounds bloody great, but then again, I used to stick my head into the beer refrigerator at the local Koreans’ just to hear the drone.
Collective Soul is broad yet detailed, loud but silvery and subtle; it is an album’s album, full of delicate overdubs and precision mixing that underlines the power of the band without ever distracting from the delicacy and intensity of the arrangements and the deep, melancholy yet uplifting melodies of singer/guitarist Ed Roland. The multi-layered production (by Roland and Matt Serletic) is complex and artful, achieving maximum psychoacoustic and crunch effect – honestly, it’s as good sounding a rock album as anyone made that entire decade. The record moves from strength to strength, taking you through various moods, from proto-stoner riffers like “Where the River Flows” and “Gel “to flickering, yet muscular Post Punk-via-Southern Rock songs like “Untitled” and “Collection of Goods” (Collective Soul’s niche of arty/planetarium hard southern rock is virtually a genre they have entirely to themselves). There’s not a bad track on the album, not even close, and the mixture of variety yet consistency is, well, stunning.
Collective Soul is one of those records that’s very goddamn good when dipped into cursorily, and even better when absorbed with time and attention. It sounds like literally every bar of the album was given detailed consideration, as if the artist knew there was something special here that would merit being listened to again and again, far into the future. “The World I Know” features the best recorded acoustic guitars you’ll ever hear; “Where the River Flows” and “Gel” amongst the best riffs of the decade; “Bleed” sounds like Duritti Column chasing some serious old-school FM cred (or to reverse that, Def Leppard after inhaling a sea trunk full of high-grade opium). For it’s entire 46 minutes, Collective Soul stays big, deep, and strong, mixing the simple and the strange, U2-spatiality and Weedeater fats. The whole thing is recorded with that Floydian/Radiohead luxury and precision.
A number of songs are based around exquisite arpeggio figures (arpeggio: what the guitar does on “Dear Prudence” and the intro to “Don’t Fear the Reaper”), and this is a recurring motif on the album. “Reunion” evolves a nearly soulful Spector-meets-Allmans sadhappy anthem around a delicious arpeggio; “When the Water Falls” constructs a sweet, almost Association-like pop song around a terrific arpeggio; and more famously, the absolutely gorgeous, engaging, and effective “December” builds and builds upon an arpeggio to create one of the decades’ very best mainstream rock moments, drawing you in and on and on and in.
Released in March 1995, neither the world, much less the small minds at Atlantic Records, was looking for a classic album from Collective Soul. I believe the notoriously anti-career development Atlantic (who I worked for at the time) saw them as a workhorse AOR moneymaker with one foot in the ’80s and one foot in the ’90s, and certainly didn’t perceive them as the rather significant and substantial artists that they truly were. Seriously, man, Atlantic had its own damn Radiohead right under their noses, and didn’t even care.
Making artful stadium rock is not an easy task (recent bands that dabbled in it, like Radiohead and Arcade Fire, fell off the wagon fast; recently, only Opeth seems up to the challenge). It takes a sonic diversity, a shmear of emotions and palettes, something that brings the listener in like a confidant, a pal, even a lover, something made for headphones, something that sighs and then pounces. On Collective Soul, the group achieve the rather difficult task of blending the whispers and the screams, the creamy acoustics and the howling riffs, the churchly intensity and the muddy-field fist-up, the Floydian and the Sabbathian, the art touched by the profane and the profane dressed up in silk.
It’s certainly far better than anything Pearl Jam ever did, and boy, do people take them seriously. Pearl Jam virtually insist on majesty, but then fall flat, because they are basically an over-educated fart, one of those slightly smart girls you meet in a Los Angeles coffee shop who you sense is probably just a little too smart for Scientology but not smart enough not to go on and on about Healing With Crystals. Uh-huh. But at least Pearl Jam are better than Smashing Pumpkins, who are virtually a … (author is stopping right now due to frothing mouth making it difficult to type, and/or irrelevancy to the primary subject, and/or recognition of the fact that his impending use of the words “Hydrocephalic” and “Over-educated Mongoloid” to describe Billy Corgan could be considered offensive to hydrocephalics, over-educated mongoloids, and their families). Where were we?
We were here: Anyone who appreciates intense, evolving, album-length voyages, anyone who likes to be whacked about the face and skull with cricket-bat riffs and balmed by equally impactful moments of tranquility and dignity, needs to spend some time listening to Collective Soul (the one with the blue cover!) and re-appraising this overlooked band.
By the way, 1999’s Dosage is very nearly as good – and perhaps better, if you’re into OK Computer or the hazed subtlety of Zeppelin’s complex, sighing In Through The Out Door. Personally, I rate it slightly below Collective Soul because it definitely shows a Radiohead influence that distracts from the bands’ own extraordinary gifts.
And they’ve kept it up, too. Collective Soul, that is. I’ll admit that I haven’t studied their 21st century output nearly as closely as I examined their work in the 1990s, but every time I dip into one of their post-millennial albums, I’m like, huh, they’re still doing it, they’ve still got it.
All of which is to say: Collective Soul was – is – a serious and seriously goddamn good rock band – kind of the band everyone thought Kings of Leon were, or a more subtle and artful Queens of the Stone Age — and they produced some of the very best albums of the 1990s.