Review Summary: 1996's fascinating new thing.
One of the consequences of being labeled a one-hit wonder is that most people generally have little to no knowledge of any other material released by the artist who managed to squeeze out one well-known song before tumbling into obscurity. A large majority of the pople who have heard of Semisonic know their quintessential 90s alt-rock hit “Closing Time”, but what not many realize is that Feeling Strangely Fine
, the album that spawned their massive hit, was actually their second. Two years before they would see any chart success, Dan Wilson and company were an up-and-coming act reeling from the breakup of Trip Shakespeare. Great Divide
, Semisonic’s debut, saw Wilson pouring his heart out into the album’s twelve songs, which cover a diverse array of emotions involving love and heartbreak.
It’s hard for a band to make their best record on their first try, but Semisonic did just that. Great Divide
is the perfect encapsulation of all of Wilson’s romantic highs and lows. While the jangly, upbeat “F.N.T.” and “Delicious” are feel-good anthems that celebrate just how special his love interests are, it’s the dreary and melancholic tracks and that show off the album’s core. Dan Wilson’s vocals express the pain and regret so flawlessly it’s hard not to feel sorry for whatever put him into such misery. “Down in Flames” begins with him singing over some acoustic strumming before the whole band comes in with roaring riffs and frenetic drumming. As he cries, “All the suffering's a mystery to me, so you'll never even get to go down in flames”, it’s pretty obvious that these feelings come across his mind far too often. “Brand New Baby” is yet another quintessential Semisonic song – Wilson’s falsettos in the chorus show off more of his vocal strengths that don’t get put into the forefront that often.
Even though the band are at their best when they’re riddled with post-breakup angst, Semisonic prove they can still rock out with love songs. “F.N.T.” in particular has Wilson crooning to his love interest, “Fascinating new thing, I'm surprised that you've never been told before that you're lovely, and you're perfect and that somebody wants you” over an infectious riff crafted by Wilson himself. Great Divide
’s love songs don’t come off as cheesy or clichéd at all; there are no four-chord power ballads or saccharine, cringe-inducing lyrics, just Wilson professing his attraction and affection to his love interest. Thankfully, the band doesn’t relegate these songs to the low position of banal snoozers; instead, the energy and elation that is felt during these moments of euphoria translate to jangly, upbeat jams in the end.
isn’t perfect – there are a couple of bland patches here and there, along with the occasional lyrical misstep, but Semisonic’s debut proves that the 90s alt-rock trio was more than the “Closing Time” band. Instrumentally, they were more talented than the rest of the mallternative one-hit wonder crop – Wilson’s masterful riffs on “F.N.T.”, “The Prize” and “Across the Great Divide” prove this, but perhaps his greatest instrumental outing is the minute-long solo at the end of “If I Run”. Lyrically, it may be typical relationship fodder, but it’s rarely clichéd and always filled with heartbreaking emotion. Great Divide
is perfect evidence that Semisonic were one of the most underrated alternative groups of the 90s, and even though they never recaptured the same magic they did on their debut, their follow-up was just as astounding.