If you’re clicking on this review, there’s a good chance that you remember Everclear from their ‘90s heyday. They were a fixture on modern rock radio back then with hit singles like “Santa Monica (Watch the World Die)”, “Father of Mine”, “I Will Buy You a New Life”, and “Wonderful.” There’s also a better than even chance that you lost track of them sometime early in the ‘00s, like most of their audience. Singer-songwriter Art Alexakis has kept the Everclear name alive since then, even as the past decade has been a rough one for the band.
After 2003’s Slow Motion Daydream failed to continue the band’s previous success, they were dropped by Capitol Records. Welcome to the Drama Club from 2006 didn’t do all that much for the band on a creative or commercial level. Since then, Alexakis has been musically fumbling around, looking for a way to recapture the old glory. In a Different Light, released in 2009, was a spectacularly ill-conceived album that featured the band re-recording its older tracks in gentler, more “mature” arrangements. In the process, did they leech all the energy and urgency out of those songs? You bet they did. Then the band recorded a handful of their hits yet again (back in their original rockin’ arrangements), along with a bunch of covers, for 2011’s Return to Santa Monica. Now Invisible Stars comes along, and it finds Alexakis going back to basics. Since “quieter and more mature” failed to generate any sort of audience response, he’s swung back in the other direction. The album’s 12 tracks are all new songs (thank heavens for small favors), but they sound exactly like what you’d expect from classic Everclear. These are punchy hard-rock songs with enough pop hooks to be catchy.
Opener “Tiger in a Burning Tree” is a short intro song (under two minutes) that features both chunky distorted guitar chords and a strummed, clean riff. It’s a serviceable song that’s nearly undermined by Alexakis’ insistence on speaking, or maybe kinda-sorta rapping, the verses. But the guitar tone definitely announces the band’s intentions for the album. The fast, upbeat second track, “Falling in a Good Way”, finds Alexakis sliding back into his storyteller persona, as the verses introduce a head-spinning number of characters and discuss what happened to them after high school. He concludes in the chorus that “Life goes south when your pretty goes away / The best that you can get is when you’re falling in a good way.” It’s telling that this idea comes up again later on the album in the overbearing screed of “The Golden Rule”, which finds Alexakis casting himself as a young, privileged white rich kid. Amongst all sorts of heavy-handed sarcasm, he shouts “Pretty makes everything better / Pretty makes everything clean / Pretty makes everything a little bit easier / Pretty makes not pretty look pretty fuckin’ obscene!”
Despite Alexakis’ apparent issues with aging gracefully, “The Golden Rule” is one of Invisible Stars few outright missteps. Mostly these are strong songs that would’ve fit right in with the band’s ‘90s hits. First single “Be Careful What You Ask For” sounds like a lost b-side from So Much for the Afterglow. In fact, it sounds like the band decided to marry the wobbly, siren-like guitar riff (here played on a synth) from “Everything to Everyone” to that album’s deep cut “Sunflowers in Europe”. But nakedly re-writing older material is definitely a step above just re-recording old songs. The mid-tempo “Santa Ana Wind” essentially recasts “I Will Buy You a New Life” as an introspective power ballad about wanting to be a better person and the joys of living in Los Angeles.
A couple of the songs manage to step above ‘90s nostalgia, mostly due to Alexakis’ lyrics working well. A lot of Everclear’s original charm came from Alexakis’ ability to make his lyrics sound personal and confessional. “I am Better Without You” taps into that vein again, as he sings about knowing his love interest is not good for him. He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself that this woman who is bad for him in every way but the sex, and is someone he should leave. It’s not exactly fresh material, but his knack for detail elevates the song. The “Civil Rights history via my friend who’s an old black man” lyrics of “Jackie Robinson” are shamelessly manipulative, but damn if they don’t work. Alexakis relates the story of Luther Jackson Green, who as a child went to see Jackie Robinson play even as Robinson was hated by racist white baseball fans. Later on, “Luther Jackson Green / Went to law school 1963 / In the summer between / He worked in Alabama with Martin Luther King.” The song concludes with Green watching the 2008 election with Alexakis and being so damn happy about Obama’s election. There is no way this story should work as anything but pure cheese, but Alexakis pulls it off through sheer conviction.
It’s hard not to be cynical about what Alexakis and his band are trying to do here, but the fact remains that Invisible Stars is an album Everclear probably should’ve made a long time ago. This isn’t great stuff, but it’s highly listenable and a lot of fun. If the band had followed up the minor sonic experimentation of 2000’s dual Songs From an American Movie albums with something like this, they might have been alternative rock survivors like the Foo Fighters. Instead, they’re spending the summer of 2012 on tour with fellow ‘90s also-rans the Gin Blossoms, Sugar Ray, Lit, and Marcy Playground.