Review Summary: An album that felt like a posthumous release long before its creator had died.3 of 4 thought this review was well written
When I learned Alex Chilton died, it felt so strange to hear simply because it was as if he had never lived. He rarely did interviews, took low profile jobs and gigs, and released very under the radar records, “Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice” right? He is often labeled a “pop genius”, but that feels too hollow, one-dimensional. His albums got much, much less “pop” as time went on. #1 Record is straight pop, Radio City shows a bit more edge but still has that hit potential, but Third/Sister Lovers, is Alex’s defining statement. After fruitlessly trying for fame and fortune, making all the right moves, all the catchiest songs but ending up scuttled by his label, he gives up. His band was at the end of its rope, and Chris Bell had already quit. So Alex did the only thing left to do, make the “f*ck it” record and nobody has done it quite like this.
Not to say this album isn’t pop at all, Thank You Friends and Jesus Christ are some of the catchiest songs in the Big Star library. But the happiness is completely faked, like smiling through a divorce hearing. Thank You Friends’ joyous backing vocals descend into mocking laughter by the end of the song, and “Jesus Christ”’s chorus, “Jesus Christ was born today, Jesus Christ was born”, sounds brutally sarcastic. But it’s all sing along worthy, which makes it more than a bit frightening.
If you think those songs are harrowing, wait until you get to the back half of the album. Following the peppy “O, Dana” comes the 3:50 second pile of misery that is “Holocaust”, and it is, quite possibly, the saddest song I’ve ever heard. It begins with everyone abandoning you, climaxes with your mother dying, and ends with you being compared to the mass murder of Jews in the 40s. It’s in the dead center of the album and the emotional bottom, but it doesn't end there. “Nighttime” and “Blue Moon” are both stunningly gorgeous acoustically led songs. The former is a haunted ballad about a winter night packed with simple but evocative lyrics so detailed you can almost hear a young Elliott Smith copping tons of his ideas from it. Then “Blue Moon” floats gently to the ground on the wings of doves. It would be a wonderful closer but instead Alex decides to finish the album with his suicide note (“Take Care”). What an asshole.
If this album sounds a bit too depressing to manage, I understand, but somehow its just not. Despite the lyrics being probably written while Alex was crying his eyes out and drunk somewhere the string section behind him just refuses to let the album crash and burn. “Stroke it Noel”, “For You”, “Blue Moon”, and especially “Take Care” are all saved from the abyss by those strings. It ends up making the album feel possessed by the specter of its creator and of all the people he lost while making it. It’s a gorgeous, tortured, fragmented, near concept record that just never loses the brilliant luster instilled by its genius creator and unsung hero producer, Jim Dickensen. So please, pay money for this record, for the sake of every band that never gets the attention they deserve.