Review Summary: Proof that pop music can overcome its limitations and result in something true and honest - something great.
It’s impossible to discuss certain records without just a little bias creeping into your argument. The illusion of impartiality is one that takes years to hone, and with Boston rock trio (now a quartet) Guster’s seminal album, Lost and Gone Forever
, I’m not even going to try to maintain it. I love Guster – their effortlessly intertwining vocals, their penchant for acoustic over electric instruments, drummer Brian Rosenworcel’s wildly creative drum work and impassioned playing (dude drums with his hands!). For most of the ‘90s Guster was “that band with the bongos,” a talented but fairly inoffensive (and thus inconsequential) group that became fairly well known in the coffee shops and college bars of New England but never really progressed past their stereotypically “college band” vibe: three guys sitting around jamming in some Boston bar. Their major label debut changed all that; it’s the same quirky band, full of double-sided metaphors and those awesome hand drums, but on a much wider studio canvas that fully realized the band’s unique voice. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, at times dripping with surprising venom and at others awash in heartwarming sentimentality, and the band hadn’t yet fully succumbed to the radio-ready formula that would dominate their latter, lesser, efforts.
Pop can be a beautiful thing when done right, and Guster, while indubitably a rock band, have never shied away from their inner pop sensibilities. It’s apparent right there on opener “What You Wish For,” where Ryan Miller’s alto contrasts companionably with Adam Gardner’s low-end rumble and Rosenworcel’s busy drum work carries things along nicely. But it’s the little things that truly shine through and make this a Guster song: the way Miller’s voice purposely cracks on the chorus, the way the band coats lyrics like “and what you wish for / won’t come true” with a bright, poppy melody. That bipolar charm is even more evident on single “Barrel of a Gun,” perhaps Guster’s best song. The drums are titanic, swelling rolls of congas and cymbal crashes that propel everything onward. The lyrics are hilariously disturbing, a love song from a man unhealthily infatuated with the celebrity on his movie poster. And the chorus is pure money, two-part harmony highlighting the dichotomy of the song itself and inviting the audience to sing along with its obsession. It’s the purest distillation of the Guster sound, and the template for the rest of the album.
The major label production does the band a big favor, showcasing and uplifting the band’s traits and talents to stadium-sized levels on an anthem like “Fa Fa” and letting them successfully pull off a near acapella effort with the fragile, triumphant “All The Way Up To Heaven.” Producer and alternative-rock maestro Steve Lillywhite deserves much of the credit here, for knowing just when to let an epic song like “Happier” explode from its timid constraints into a full-blown chorus. Too often in later efforts would the band reveal their cards too early, obscuring their unique appeal with formulaic sounds and structures that sounded just like everything else out on the radio. Here, though, Lillywhite lets a song like the threatening closer of “Rainy Day” to develop on its own. The result is an organic evolution from the foreboding drum taps and crackling guitar of the intro to an apocalyptic, thunderous stomp of an ending, a song that progresses and flows with the ease and chameleonic strength of the record itself. It’s lightning in a bottle, a time-stamped image of where the band had been and where they were going to go in the new millennium.
But Guster would be just another lucky college band if it weren’t for the members themselves, who continually hit homers with nearly every song here, each of which boasts mammoth hooks and sterling performances. Rosenworcel is an absolute beast on the drums, throwing out polyrhythms seemingly on demand and abusing his hands with passion; check out the subtle work on concert favorite “I Spy,” or the way he kills the chorus on “Happier” (there’s a reason he also goes by “the Thundergod”). Miller’s vocals aren’t as polished as they would be in the future, but it’s this winsome imperfection that gives his emotional performances such character. Lost and Gone Forever
is a surprisingly dark record, something not readily apparent when you listen to Miller’s eternally optimistic vocals and the songs’ supernaturally bright melodies. But it’s there in the lyrics, from the sarcastic daggers Miller throws on “Two Points For Honesty” to the damning chorus of “Happier” that Gardner’s bass voice adds so much gravity to.
Guster’s mixture of pop joy and lyrical disenchantment is a paradoxical one, and the direct reason for Lost and Gone Forever’s
timelessness. It’s the band in a nutshell, three guys who know how to write music that spoke to the sunnier side of one’s heart, but also with that singular talent to match it with subversive wit and hopeless lovesickness. It’s something that the band never really lost, but never again could they focus it as tightly as they did through these forty-four minutes. It’s that rare pop-rock record that demands repeated listens and rewards them; the kind of album that proves that radio hooks and accessible songwriting can coexist alongside impressive musicianship and a roiling mess of emotions. In short, it’s proof that pop music can overcome its self-imposed limitations and result in something true and honest – something great.