[16 November 2011]
Oh, Bush. What can I say? They try oh so very hard to make relevant, introspective music that incorporates both a self-analysis and the relation of that self-awareness to their greater social reality. This is a massive undertaking for a band that is pretty much a slightly more sophisticated version of Foo Fighters (note that I said “more sophisticated” and not “better”). It’s an admirable task they take on, but unfortunately always fall short. If only they could give in to the playfulness and absurdity their music offers, they’d probably be celebrated for the fun stadium rock they produce, rather than teased and scoffed at for their attempt to be something greater than they are.
That’s what Bush is—stadium rock. There’s nothing immediately wrong with that—it’s fun, loud, vibrant, catchy and at times, chaotic. Hell, the ‘80s flourished on stadium rock, and who won’t admit that Def Leppard wrote some of the most enjoyable hard rock tunes? Bush, on the other hand, emerged in the heyday of grunge and consequently kept coming up against the inevitable comparisons with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other Seattle-based wonders. Practically disowned from their native England, Bush capitalized on the crunchy sound of the ‘90s by producing an angsty teen hit with their debut album, Sixteen Stone. Three albums later, and the death of grunge, Bush silently disappeared from the limelight.
Now, nine years later, Bush has “reunited” in the same way the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole have “reunited” (without two of their founding members: Parsons on bass guitar or Pulsford on guitar). The Sea of Memories is the result of Rossdale’s thinly disguised follow-up solo effort, which does nothing to build on the band’s distinctive sound. But then again, all of Bush’s songs were written solely by Rossdale, so the missing members shouldn’t really affect the evolution of the band. Unfortunately, nothing on The Sea of Memories sounds anywhere near as “original” as some of their earlier work. It doesn’t crackle with the grit of hits like “Machinehead” or “Come Down”, nor is it as “inspired” as Bush in their most experimental, as on “Greedy Fly” or “Swallowed”. What it does sound like is a close retreading of what the band did on their last few albums (which failed to resonate with fans), while simultaneously trying to capitalize on the new trend of rock—a trend which leans closer to pop than rock. Tracks like “All My Life” and “Stand Up” explode in booming choruses that with different production (just speed up the tempo and switch up the guitars and drums for synthesizers) you’d have instant hits for pop artists such as Jessie J or Lady Gaga.
It’s a shame, too, because Gavin isn’t a completely horrible songwriter. He will occasionally churn out lyrics that can be (perhaps unintentionally) poignant and poetic. But given the numerous times his lyrics border a vomit inducing nausea, one can only conclude that these occasionally good lyrics are a fluke. On The Sea of Memories there are no such flukes of inspired lyrics. What Gavin seems to have done here is trade in the angsty pessimism that characterized so many ‘90s grunge acts for an “I’ll-be-there-for-you” attitude, sprinkled with some “love-is-grand” gestures and “hooray-for-everything” queasiness. The result are lyrics like “Touch the sky because now we are weightless / Floating out into empty spaces / We are faceless, we are soldiers / We believe what you told us / I’ve seen you dance / I’ve seen you dance through the radio / All my life / I have waited for this moment / All my life, tonight / (Feelings don’t die) / All my life / I have waited for this moment / All my life, tonight / (Ocean-sized).” They’re not immediately horrible, but given that they are really no better than your average pop tune (and coupled with the fact that every other song on the album is similar in tone), they can become kind of grating.
It doesn’t help that Bush recruited long-time Metallica producer Bob Rock who’s production technique is never subtle. Every guitar riff and every drum-fill is highlighted, and nothing is missed. He definitely has a “what-you-hear-is-what-you-get” approach to rock production but alas, when everything is highlighted, nothing stands out. And that’s precisely the problem with The Sea of Memories. Its grandeur style is forceful and imposing. There’s no subtle brilliance, there’s no hushed tones or subdued production techniques. Even on ballads like “All Night Doctors” (a blatant regurgitation of Bush’s massive hit “Glycerine”), the piano is blaring, and when those characteristic crunchy Bush guitars come in, they’re overpowering.
The Sea of Memories will most likely please those few Bush fans who’ve been hoping for a reunion, but it will not change the minds of those who relegated Bush to nothing more than a disingenuous rip-off of so many more brilliant ‘90s alterna-rock acts. This isn’t to say the album is awful—there are some pretty fun stadium rock moments. As for the future, we can only hope that they drop their thin “artistic” pretense and embrace the stadium sound they were born to deliver.