Sunny Day Real Estate’s How It Feels to Be Something On at 20
Black Sabbath didn’t really roar like the metal they hath wrought. Run-D.M.C. influenced everybody but resembled very few post-1986 rappers. The Velvet Underground weren’t exactly punk even though it couldn’t live without them. But few genre progenitors were as far off from the sound they created as Sunny Day Real Estate and all the emo offspring who alleged they’re the fathers.
Sure, the Seattle quartet named their first album Diary, and it was their rawest and most adolescent expression of angst in a catalogue that’s not lacking for, well, emotion. But that didn’t make it any species of punk. The astonishing opener “Seven” came close, with its bracing tempo, but most of Diary’s anthems (“In Circles,” “Song About an Angel,” “Sometimes”) were more a slow-motion martial plod gaining mass over time than some kind of blitzkrieg bop. And the sub-three-minute piano diddle “Pheurton Skeurto,” with made-up language in the title, foreshadowed their proggier ambitions to come.
The clear pain and longing in Jeremy Enigk’s curiously British-tinged voice was the main link to what we’ve come to refer to as “emo,” though turning his even more curious verbiage into coherent thought meant simply feeling the alienation in standalone signifiers like the scream of “innnnnnnnnnnferiorrrrrrrrrrr” that earmarked the dissonant “The Blankets Were the Stairs” or “Seven”’s muttering self-invite to “Sew it on, face the fool” like there’s a bully standing behind him. The even more inscrutable “pink album” that followed, officially known as LP2, had no lyric booklet, so fans would just have to take rumors at face value, like “J’Nuh” (named after its own chugging guitar coda) being about Enigk’s brother ripping the head off of his teddy bear. LP2 remains their most concise record to date, as if trying to skip to its own ending in nine of their least epic (but still excellent) songs. But even that was a far cry from “punk,” just some miniature anthems by a dissolving band whose singer had just fell in love with religion.
Three years later, the band that broke up less than two years after its debut made its masterpiece, one of many contradictions that existed within the confines of Sunny Day Real Estate, another that it was supposed to be an outtakes record. How It Feels to Be Something On was one of the least expected albums of 1998 in every way: here was a band no one was relying on that ended up helping to invent the modern alt-rock reunion album, and it sounded like nothing that came before, by them or anyone else. Radiohead was its closest cousin, and they were about to go techno. Early Shins owe a debt to it, but only if their hypermelodic trifles gained weight. Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens and most indie-rock with some ornate grandeur to it was several years away. But this was, frankly, a band on Sub Pop who sounded like U2.
Enigk’s lyrics took on an almost folkloric sensibility that made his made-up phrases like “mondrary fields” a perfect fit for the nautical sway of “Guitar and Video Games,” while the glimmering nightlight of Dan Hoerner’s chiming, circular guitar figure at the end of “100 Million” needed little more decoration than a haunted Enigk howling “Who turned the light out?” over it. The song “How It Feels to Be Something On” was a cleverly-chorded waltz that stood with Elliott Smith’s “Waltz #2 (XO)” from the same year and rose to a crashing climax like waves on Enigk’s astral beach. No one would deny these songs were bursting with feeling, but their otherworldly, timeless swirl barely felt recognizable to this planet, much less the dating frustrations of its inhabitants that supposed contemporaries like the Promise Ring, the Get Up Kids or Jimmy Eat World were airing out.
Greg Williamson’s production gave the band’s arrangements an urgency and heft that Enigk’s solo records and their subsequent group efforts (The Rising Tide, semi-spinoff group the Fire Theft’s eponymous one-shot) have continued. The very teenage-sounding helplessness of the pensive “Every Shining Time You Arrive” (“Want to change everything / Want to blame everything on…”) sounded retrospective for once, a wizened lookback brought to earth by the funereal organ line across the bridge. “Roses in Water” alternated one of Dan Hoerner’s sweet-and-sour chimes with Middle Eastern scales, and “The Prophet” layered Enigk muttering monk-like chants until a roiling Zeppelin epic erupted over top. The alien guitar delay on “Days Were Golden” remains the closest cousin to OK Computer’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” extant.
None of it would mean a thing if the songs weren’t so lovely, though. And How It Feels to Be Something On is on an unhurried campaign to stand with XO or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as a true totem of lushly rendered indie-rock beauty. You could even say it’s better. And while it remains a mystery how Sunny Day Real Estate came to be the founders of an enigmatic, very male punk subgenre with their almost genderless yowls for empathy and mysterious prettiness, maybe a clue lies in the rousing refrain of the absolute peak “Guitar and Video Games”: “What if we refuse to follow the rules of fashion?” The answer was that fashion ended up following them instead.