“The only real answer to the question ‘Wither rock & roll’ is hither. Some misguided people think that the answer is tither? They’re wrong. Their theories are passe.”
—Opening sound sample of “The World Owes Me a Living (And I Intend to Collect)”
Sean Nelson wants to pay his dues, but he only wants someone to tell him who to make the check out to.
After all, it’s hard to survive the great ‘90s alt-rock explosion and still come out intact. While groups like Everclear and the Gin Blossoms get stuck playing the festival circuits from now til infinity, some artists are actually able to parlay their notoriety into a reliable solo career (see Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty as a shining example). Harvey Danger will always be thought of as one-hit wonders for the scathing, way-smarter-than-anything-on-the-radio barnstormer “Flagpole Sitta”, a song that very much tipifies that era for a lot of people (along with Eve 6’s “Inside Out”) and has even been subject to some notable lipdub treatments.
Yet what’s funny about Harvey Danger was that even though their second album, 2000’s King James Version, was an out-and-out flop, it wasn’t long before a small cult began growing around that disc, fans latching on to the wry, biting, and profoundly funny wit that was on display, dropping more quotable lines than a Noah Baumbach film while proving to be immensely well-crafted on a musical front. The band put their all into that record and it shows through every single moment, and had contexts and circumstances proved different, KJV would’ve been hailed as a benchmark of the genre, instead of just as the hidden secret that it is now. Distraught by their best work being completely ignored, Harvey Danger soon went on hiatus, drummer Evan Sult joining the Bound Stems, Nelson spending a lot of time with with his buddies at Barsuk Records, collaborating heavily with The Long Winters’ John Roderick, writing a 33 1/3 book on Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, and even scoring a few significant indie film roles.
So when the group inevitably reunited for 2005’s Little by Little…, they threw caution to the wind and wound up doing a “pay what you want” format a full two years before Radiohead shocked the industry with the exact same idea for In Rainbows, and while that album showed Nelson & co. mellowing out a bit and exploring more straight-up pop structures, they never branched much out of the cult audience that was still fiercely loyal to them. A long-delayed B-sides & rarities comp entitled Dead Sea Scrolls was released for free online, a final song called “The Show Must Not Go On” emerged, and in 2009, the band played their final show in Seattle. Sean Nelson seemed to be done with music for awhile.
Thus, Make Good Choices, Nelson’s first-ever solo disc, is being released now under casual expectations, as there’s no one to really prove anything to but himself. It’s more pop than rock, continuing the more melodically MOR approach that Harvey Danger was taking with Little By Little… but with a much sharper focus on virtually every front. The album opens with the plunky piano jaunt “The World Owe Me a Living (And I Intend to Collect)”, which does a good job of jostling expectations of anyone expecting the fuzzed-out amp rock of “Flagpole Sitta”. In fact, the very next track, “Born Without a Heart”, shows Nelson working in the unamplified guitar rock territory that’s more befitting of the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, but it’s Nelson’s wounded-bird delivery that ultimately helps the song stick the landing, especially when coupled with his knack for nailing down those everyday details that help set the mood so succinctly (“Play me a song / On that old guitar that will not stay in tune”).
In the large scope of things, a lot of Nelson’s songwriting is based around failed relationships, and he can play the sad-sack well, which he does very well on “Brooklyn Bridge”, wherein he describes a very bleak date: “I took you to dinner / The prices were shocking / It was tough conversation / You did all the talking”, later describing his experience in suitably drab terms (“I guess it’d be funny / If it weren’t so depressing”). With a heavy emphasis on this piano-playing skills, his songs often carry a vibe that’s more befitting of classic music halls and old timey pubs (“Ski Lift Incident” being a choice example), but even his inclination towards all things ragtime still can’t get by his knack for some very Barsuk-ian pop hooks, as “More Good News From the Front” and “Make Good Choices” are easy melodic entry points for fans of old Harvey Danger/those looking for a quick guitar rock fix.
While Make Good Choices never has one stratospheric “wow” track that elevates above all the rest, in many ways it doesn’t need to: so many of the songs here shine by themselves, feeling like they’re a part of the same vision even as they show deliberate echoes of rock’s storied past. The first part of the chorus of “I’ll Be the One” is a carbon copy of the bridge to “Eight Days a Week” (which makes sense: if you’re going to cover Badfinger, you might as well go with one of the classics), while the third verse of “Hey, Millicent” adds on the latter-song flourishes that the Beatles wound up doing so very well during their early-middle period (and that’s nothing to speak of “Creative Differences”, which manages to make deliberately cynical allusions to both “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and the Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” before it even hits the chorus). Yet when not giving shout-outs to his record collection, Nelson is fully aware of how to play in his wheelhouse, and as such, there’s a closing triptych of songs (“The Price of Doing Business”, “Stupid and 25 (The Incredibly Sad Shuffle)”, and “Hey, Millicent”) that just bleed snarkiness. Nelson manages to throw in enough deprecation to prevent this almost-suite from coming across as mean-spirited, but his poison pen takes no prisoners (“Congratulations on your great success / It’s comforting to see you’re still a mess / Oh, I hope I didn’t say that out loud”).
Ultimately, not every moment on Make Good Choices works (“Advance and Retreat” and “I’ll Be the One” would sound fairly anonymous were it not for Nelson’s distinct wordplay), but by and large, Make Good Choices is a very well-rounded, remarkably entertaining record. “Kicking Me Out of the Band”, the album’s closing track, may come across to some as a scathing incitement of his time fronting Harvey Danger, but it winds up being a glorious piece of historical fiction that mocks less the music industry (a worn trope these days) and more the interpersonal ego teardowns that come from being in a band, and it evokes a strangely emotional gravitas even while it tears down everything from Velvet Revolver & HSAS to almost every rock musician’s inherent need to use drugs in order to make art (“They made the greatest records high / If they can do it, why can’t I?”). Fortunately for Sean Nelson, he can be stone cold sober and still turn out great records. It’s welcome to just hear him at it again.