Jeremy Enigk Revives His “Return”

Seminal Solo Album from Sunny Day Real Estate Frontman Doesn’t Dissuade the Emo Assertion

Jeremy Enigk acoustic, photo courtesy of jeremyenigk.com

First things first. At this juncture, it seems unclear why Jeremy Enigk opted to reissue his obtuse yet complex first go as a solo artist, the fascinating and furtive Return of the Frog Queen. Rumor has it that he’ll be touring with it as well. An album flush with spectral ambiance and dainty dalliance into the realms of chamber pop and elegiac expression, it remains one of his most adventurous albums, one that set him apart from anything he produced during his day job with Sunny Day Real Estate or even later on his own. It served to announce both his intention and ambitions, in both its concept and execution. Backed by a full orchestra, it was a conceptual work by its very definition, one that helped define Enigk as an artist who would never be content to abide by any expectations.

Yet, there’s the rub. Despite the inclusion of bonus tracks, and the rediscovery of what made this album such a remarkable work in the first place, it’s highly unlikely that the mystique and magic will dispel the singular impression that Enigk’s unwittingly purveyed for years.

That is, that he’s an “emo” artist.

Simply stated, there’s nothing emo about this album.  Not then, when it was originally released in 1996, and not now, some 22 years later.

Consequently it remains a mystery why that tag, that assertion, that claim — whatever one wants to call it — remains a continuing fascination (rather, make that obsession) amongst critics, pundits and, we suspect, fans alike, at least as far as Sunny Day Real Estate, and its enigmatic singer are concerned. After all, Emo was once a description that originally implied a downcast demeanor, similar to,  say, Nick Drake or any other forlorn folky of a more pessimistic persuasion. Granted, Enigk has always exuded his fair share of edge and angst, but his is more the result of amplified expression — a need, it seems, to make his presence known in both creative and compulsive ways

That the term would literally come to define the band, and by turns, Enigk as its lead singer, seems odder still in light of the fact that Sunny Day Real Estate never laid claim to that mantle, either deliberately or through their musical associations. They were, in fact, a product of Seattle’s post grunge scene, one which adhered to basic punk precepts, where shouting, pouting and pontificating represented outrage and insurgence, not the suffering and sobriety that emo originally implied. Granted, there was always diversity in the sound, an approach furthered on Enigk’s series of solo albums and the band’s temporary offshoot, The Fire Theft. Yet, reflection and reserve were only temporal parts of the overall mix. Indeed, Sunny Day Real Estate was much too skittish to be confined to any particular label, particularly one with the darker resonance that emo bears.

The fact that Enigk is reticent to grant interviews does little to dispel that notion, although in the few instances where he has offered an explanation, he has expressed confusion as to why the emo label seemed to stick. “We were punk rockers, and from the outset that was where we came from,” he told A/V Music. “Not following the mainstream was in our blood. I relate to that line fully because I have an aversion to conformity. Even when I am forced to conform—we all are on many levels—that line is definitive. It says exactly what it means: Be an individual, you know? Be yourself.”

Fair enough, but when asked why he doesn’t confront the assertion more often, he told the interviewer that he found such discussions “nerve-racking and annoying.” “We were focused on making music. We just wanted to bring our passion and our conflict and our joy into this musical form…I think we were punk, but we didn’t consider our style punk rock. And we certainly didn’t consider ourselves emo. I think if anything we were hardcore.”

The fact that Rolling Stone included the band, and by association, Enigk himself, on their list of so-called Top Emo Albums of all time, added an unwanted credence, so much so, that Enigk found himself forced to embrace it, however half-heartedly, because there was little else he could do to dissuade it. After all, Sunny Day Real Estate became an established brand, an imprint imbedded over the course of three successive tenures, from 1992 to 1995, then 1997 to 2001, and finally from their years of reformation and reconciliation, 2009-2013.

As far as Enigk himself was concerned, there were other additives as well. A self-avowed Christian, he adhered to a message that offered its own meanings, but even in that context, the impression was obscured. Sunny Day Real Estate’s album LP2, boasted no printed lyrics per se, but rather the sound of mumble jumble sung in syllables and improvised on the spot. Likewise, what other artist with a supposed devotion to God’s glory would initiate his efforts with an outfit that called itself “Reason for Hate.” Yet, Enigk made his bow with that very band, which confused matters even more.

Enigk concedes the fact that it was mystique that mattered most.

“Everything was word of mouth,” he told a writer with Riot Fest. “The mystery sort of made it work. Everybody went to live shows and experienced these things, and that was the energy of what it was really all about, at least in my opinion. That’s how Sunny Day worked, too. I’d sing with syllabic rhythm and melody, and then we’d sit down and put words in places—words that sounded like what I was saying. And it’d create some very haunting poetry and profound statements at times. The song [would] create itself a lot that way, unexpectedly.”

Indeed, one would have to argue that the sheer complexity and indefinable aspect of Enigk’s music, both with the band and without, makes the application of any singular term a moot point. “To probably my detriment, I’m not somebody who has ever been interested in selling myself,” he confessed to Riot Fest. “I’ve always just been interested in the musical aspect. And it is to my detriment, because I have to hustle without a label. But music to me is a meditation. If something is happening in my life, it’s an opportunity for me to sit and reflect and allow that music to speak for my emotion, and get my emotion out in some structural way.”

Emotion? So does that mean “emo?”

To the contrary, Enigk is no more emo than, say Bono or Eddie Vedder. There’s the obvious angst, but given the volume and veracity, the description is simply suspect, even at the outset. He once admitted that U2 was the very reason why he became a musician, and given the fact that Sunny Day Real Estate and Pearl Jam were the product of the same environs, the musical connection between the two entities are all too obvious.

Consequently, the reissue of this seminal album offers opportunity to pause and redefine out impressions of the curious Mr. Enigk. Return of the Frog Queen is indeed a welcome return and a wonderful recording. But anyone who still considers the music or its maker emo is clearly missing the point.

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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