Back in 2008, Merge Records gave us one of the more indispensable rock reissues in recent memory. Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology was a huge chunk of music from a band that had slipped through the cracks of musical history, one of those late ‘80s rock bands that get drowned out in conversation by the ‘90s bands that followed them. But Supercluster gave us all their greats from albums like Craps and Heavens and also included an album’s worth of material recorded after their major-label album, Slam, but before the band broke up in 1992.
So, for a while anyway, that seemed like our best guess at what these guys could have done if they carried on, those jettisoned by excellent songs for an album that never happened. But, after playing a few shows in 2008 following the reissue, the band has returned with their first proper album in 22 years, Crashes on the Platinum Planet, and it is a welcome, goofy, charming return for one of the past 30 years finest power-pop acts. The band took their time recording these, with no deadlines, in their own home studio, and the results feel both precise and cut loose, intricately layered by never overthought.
The album sneaks its way to life with the unassuming watery guitars, and mid-tempo opening of “Lord Scrumptious”, one of many songs with an imagined, eccentric character. Here, the main characters excesses are rendered in fantastic imagery—“Lord Scrumptious chows down on a cloud that’s made of delicious whole cream” or “He’s chewing on part of the world”—while Bill Goffrier and Gary Waleik’s guitars swirl over the lean drums of Jeff Oliphant. It’s got all the trademarks of great Big Dipper songs: sweet vocal harmonies, hooks upon hooks, and an irrepressible oddball charm. But it also represents a more lived-in sound. There was always an edge of anxiety to their older work and now, as the older-wiser Big Dipper, Waleik and company feel more comfortable in their skin than ever.
This, of course, doesn’t cut the energy of the record at all. In fact, their comfort amps up the confident structures of these songs, which allows the band to stretch out and try subtle experiments. Even a song like “Robert Pollard” plays like a calculated risk. Since Waleik recorded an album with Pollard last year under the band title Mars Classroom, and Big Dipper played with Pollard’s Boston Spaceships back in 2008, and hell it’s Pollard who provides this new album with its cover art, this song could seem like some inside joke or the musical equivalent to hearing a best-man’s toast at a wedding you weren’t invited to. But Waleik and company are too clever for such traps, and instead “Robert Pollard” is not about the man, but rather an image of the process of creating. Pollard is displayed, unsurprisingly, like a hook-and-chorus machine, while Waleik namechecks himself as the struggling writer, churning out song parts that are “all wrong”, and then shifts to, believe it or not, Sir Paul McCartney, who apparently can still write “but hides it away”. Under the funny self-mocking here is a genuine and thoughtful rumination on creativity, on its struggles and successes. And it’s got one hell of a chorus.
This is how Big Dipper works. They lure you in with strange images and sweet riffs, but surprise you with the subtle emotions underneath. “Princess Warrior” seems like another winking character study, but in the end is a sweet, heartfelt ode to a cancer survivor. Closer “Guitar Named Desire: The Animated Sequel” updates an old instrument from the band’s history with lyrics that pay homage to, yup, the guitar itself. But it’s no mere toss-off closer, but instead a celebration of the making of music itself. And make many different sounds they do here, and they hit each note with their usual, off-kilter precision. There’s the blue-light organ crunch of “Market Scare”, the lilting, high-register balladry of “Happy New Year”, and the space-pop moody echo of “Sarah and Monica”. These don’t shift away from the band’s power-pop wheelhouse so much as twist it and pull it in new directions.
It’s this breadth of sounds, and the zeal with which they are delivered, that makes Crashes on the Platinum Planet such an excellent rock record. Big Dipper are still the underdogs you want to root for, but they are still cranking out riffs and rattling off sweet harmonies that would make bigger bands blush. This album celebrates the very creation of music both thematically and in the unbridled zeal of its sound. They use these sounds to pay tribute to friends, to create their own sonic worlds, to wonder over inspiration and creation even as they seem to both inspire and create effortlessly. 22 years is a long time to way for another record from a band, but Crashes on the Platinum Planet makes up for it in spades. In a time of empty reunions and watered-down new music from long washed-up bands cashing in on nostalgia, Big Dipper proves (yet again) that they are the real deal: a band with as much personality as talent, a band owed their due. If nothing else, this excellent new collection gives us another opportunity to give it to them.