According to the definition from the king of genre explanations, allmusic.com, adult alternative is “a smooth, melodic, radio-friendly style that packaged alternative’s mellower side for wider consumption”. Some mainstays of the genre include Jeff Buckley, late-era Goo Goo Dolls, my beloved Crowded House, my personal deity Aimee Mann, and—give me a moment to vomit in my mouth a bit—Dave Matthews Band. I suppose it’s adult contemporary with an edge. The three artists profiled here are undoubtedly part of this movement, and while it seems unfair to pigeonhole them into something for adults, genres exist for a reason and I’m not going to cry over it.
My first experience with bona fide adult alternative was David Gray’s “White Ladder” in 2000, when I was 18 years old. Growing up a punk rocker, and still considering myself one to a certain extent, I felt that my sheer enjoyment of that record was somewhat traitorous. But punk rock, God bless it, can be a limited genre that doesn’t take kindly to other genres, and the older I got, the more I found myself branching out, exploring more and more different types of music, and finding excellence everywhere. I no longer should, and I no longer do, feel any guilt. We should never limit ourselves, because art is subjective, and beauty can be found everywhere.
It was around 2005, I guess. Back in those days I was listening to a lot of Michael Penn, David Mead, Jim Boggia—you know, mid-tempo pop/rock-pop-underground type stuff for sensitive adults (thus, “adult alternative”). I was working in online marketing for a large corporation, so I guess it made sense. Someone suggested Aqualung to me, which is not a band, but the work of Englishman Matt Hales. He’s the kind of prick you want to brutalize, as he began playing piano at the age of four (as did I) and was awarded a scholarship to Winchester College at age 16 (I was not), and has been utilizing his abilities to churn out popular, sensitive music along the lines of David Gray, Coldplay, Greg Laswell, Travis, and such.
Back to what I was saying, however. I listened to Aqualung all those years ago and just laughed at what a little crybaby dandy this guy was. He was like James Blunt with one ball.
But I always have an urge to revisit the things I once hated, and I don’t know if I changed or Hales switched from those tissues with lotion on them to regular ones, but his most recent album, Magnetic North (released on Verve Forecast in the US in 2010) is exactly the kind of gorgeous, lush, pop orgasm that I yearn for, with songs that get into the pit of your stomach and fill your mind with thoughts melancholy, bittersweet, and poignant. This is one of the most enticing things about adult alternative music: you can usually bet on the emotions being real, as you’re not dealing with teenage or college-age songwriters or lyricists (again, usually). Call me unfair, but the young’uns usually haven’t been through enough in life to have a, um, solidified heart and soul with which they can produce poignancy and beauty.
With Aqualung, I listen to a song like “Thin Air” and truly believe that Hales knows exactly what gorgeous is and brings it to the studio with him. Other winners of his (off the same album) include “Lost”, which proves that, once again, Aqualung creates staggeringly beautiful melodies with ease, and when he’s in the right frame of mind, he knows just how to craft perfect pop. And it’s not always simple or just music for the masses; the title track itself features a highly complex melody that proves beautiful nonetheless if you simply listen. In fact, just about every other track on Magnetic North struck me as good to great to perfect, prompting me to investigate his earlier work, so I actually have no complaints. And when the hell does that ever happen?
Staying in the UK but jumping from England to Wales, let’s discuss one of my closest pals perpetuating this genre, Ed Harcourt. I’ve been following him since some website told me that I might like his work since I like Michael Penn and David Mead and some of those guys who are classified as singer-songwriters but don’t amateurishly proselytize like the proverbial bearded dingbat with the acoustic guitar, Birkenstocks, and Chai tea down at the coffee shop singing about veganism. This was around Ed’s “Strangers” days (2004), and the man has always been melodramatic, often brilliant, and frustratingly inconsistent.
On his 2010 Nice Records release, Lustre, he solves the problem. He’s still melodramatic; that’s one reason I love him. But he’s no longer often brilliant, he’s always brilliant. In fact, if you looked to me for some defining albums of this genre, Ed Harcourt’s Lustre would be up there with Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space, Michael Penn’s MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident, and David Mead’s Indiana. It is remarkably good.
Even the worst songs on Lustre are better than the best songs on his early albums, explicitly documenting his rise as a songwriter. This time around, he has a cleaner sound, making sure no aspects of the songs get lost in some elusive recording muck, and it’s the most cohesive collection of songs he’s ever given us. And most impressively, it hardly sounds like he’s trying; he doesn’t need to wow us with his melodies, like artists such as Owen Pallett (not quite AA), Fiona Apple (definitely AA), or Sufjan Stevens (AA when he wants to be). Those guys and gals are all brilliant in their own way, don’t get me wrong, but Harcourt has no frying pan of melodies with which to pound you over the head, he just lets it happen, and the brilliance is often in the delivery.
Sometimes it’s still a misty-eyed mope-fest (you get a lot of that in the world of adult alternative, another attractive aspect to me, as I have a tendency to be melodramatic—to put it lightly), and you can tell simply by looking at the song titles: “When the Lost Don’t Want to Be Found”, “Killed by the Morning Sun”, and, of course, “Lachrymosity”. There are bright moments, too, for you insane people that enjoy optimism and happiness: the title track has 1970s pop written all over it, but the melody is beautiful and the structure is perfect; “Do As I Say Not As I Do” is all twinkling piano and handclaps, and “A Secret Society”, although ultimately of little consequence, is still pure pop, bursting with cute exuberance and sha-la-la’s and oo-oo-oo’s. I’m not going to get all cliché on your ass and say “emotional rollercoaster”, but rather describe this as an album by an artist who has stepped into complete confidence, and can seamlessly take you from morose to giddy and everywhere in between.
The word “lustre” (or “luster” for those of us not in the UK) generally has to do with waxing your car, but one definition states: “radiance of beauty, excellence, merit, distinction, or glory.” Well, kids, it’s all of the above. Start here, then check out his previous effort, The Beautiful Lie. Hales and Harcourt are by no means underground, but, at least in the United States, they’re not household names. Let’s move our way into the more commercial side of the genre.
You may not want to, but think current Goo Goo Dolls (not punk GGD, not Replacements GGD, but post-A Boy Named Goo GGD), think Toad the Wet Sprocket, Counting Crows, even the Wallflowers.
Lifehouse, my favorite of all the chart-topping AA acts, are all these things. They are the epitome of radio-ready MOR (middle of the road, so you know). And I usually wouldn’t go for that, but there is no way that I can deny that Lifehouse are the MOR paragon.
Between my complicated music (say Wire’s 154, Can’s Ege Bamyasi, or my beloved Xiu Xiu or Bruce Haack), I could listen to Smoke & Mirrors, Lifehouse’s newest collection of near-perfection, almost endlessly. Nearly every track on this record is melodic superiority, dealt with no frills, no illusions (making the title somewhat confusing) -they know what they are and they do it so well. Most of the songs sound the same, but the sound of those songs is a great one.
So, fuck it all. I know it’s hip’s antithesis to enjoy a band like Lifehouse, or artists like Aqualung or Ed Harcourt, or any of the artists I’ve mentioned in this dissertation, but I’m not concerned with hip. I’m concerned with what pleases my ear. So please, Mr. Animal Collective, oh please, Ms. Codeine Velvet Club, excuse my lack of esotericism, but this music makes me comfortable. This music just feels right.