There are some classic albums in my collection that led to the purchase of more, further relics in the catalog of some band or other, but which remain the only album that has ever been spun. Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary is of this ilk. When I discovered the album, through my friend Nick in high school, it felt revelatory. I got my hands on it years later and got more acquainted. I saw SDRE on reunion tour and felt like a poser. Maybe more about that some day. For now, feeling like a poser. I was with a bunch of fans thirsty for their favorite band to reunite, and I just didn’t know a number of the tracks that evening because I had never listened past Diary. On the one hand, why would I need to? Diary is damn near perfect! But on the other, if this is so perfect, why wouldn’t I listen to more, especially from a band with such a pedigree?
The answer is one I find myself getting often in this project: expectations can be easily disappointed, and there are no guarantees of anything from one album to another.
How It Feels To Be Something On feels more like anything but Sunny Day Real Estate if you’re coming from Diary. If you can listen to “100 Million” and not hear the DeLeo brothers of Stone Temple Pilots all over that composition, well, I don’t think you’re trying very hard. It also explains some of the moments on “Two Promises,” where the “now she’s gone again” line is delivered in a way which would likely only be done by Bowie or Weiland. If the guitar lines, for that matter, don’t evoke the earnest indie-emo of the late 90s more than the bleeding-on-the-floor emotion of Diary and its ilk, it’s likely because you hears SDRE first. It’s hard to reverse engineer once an album comes out, tracing back to see what started where, and who did what first. Having fallen so hard for what Diary put in place, though, How It Feels… is a bit disappointing. It promised a continuation of a brilliant but brief fire. It’s not that that flame doesn’t still burn, but it’s definitely not raging: it’s far more contained, far less bright.
Sometimes these changes bring positive surprises: “Roses in Water” is interesting for its time signature and it’s Arab inflections. “The Prophet,” starting as it does with a chanted mantra which carries throughout the first half, may be the most obvious in its mysticism, but “Roses” feels haunting and unknowable in a way that the more heavy-handed later track does not. If these tracks shock for their unique aspects, however, ”Every Shining Time You Arrive” ends up being even more surprising for having almost none of the hallmarks of Diary. It’s almost the sort of rock of a Duncan Sheik or Eagle-Eye Cherry, and Jeremy Enigk’s voice fades into that tepid mix. Elsewhere there is still the tension, as in the winding backing track of “Pillars,” or the heavy drop of the beats on the title track. There is Enigk’s upper register, which still sounds possessed even as it loses it’s raw desperation. Even tamed, there are hints of that old flame in the bombast barely contained below “Guitar and Video Games,” his vocals exhibiting forced restraint here as the drums pound through the track’s changes. And yet, there is a reserved sigh as even a track called “The Shark’s Own Private Fuck” has no shark anger or fuck passion. None of it is bad, but it’s just.not.Diary.
Perhaps that should be the golden rule of music, though? Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, and don’t judge an album by its predecessors. Many amazing albums are so good purely because they took a strong stride in a new direction. It might be hard to shed all those biases… I don’t like my chances… but I do wonder how How It Feels To Be Something On would have fared without the hopes for more of what that magical first album provided. There’s no going back to that, but maybe we can come around with time.