Chicago rock station WKQX recently made headlines for pulling one of radio’s most unusual feats: the DJs began playing a song by a “mystery artist” called “The Great Divide”. Listeners dug it up, sending the song soaring into the station’s most-requested list, though fans would have to wait three whole weeks before the creators of this catchy piano-pop song would be revealed. When the time came, it proved to be… Hanson. Yeah, the three brothers who made “MMMBop” all those many moons ago. The trio of longhaired brothers were quietly releasing pop-rock albums on their own label, something they did to prove that they were not merely a “manufactured” group of prepubescent rock stars. Their name still carries a lot of baggage, so naturally the guys relished any opportunity to distance themselves from their early “teen-pop” label.
Collective Soul have traveled a similar path, but we’re all still trying to figure out why.
When people refer to “alternative rock in the ‘90s”, there’s a good chance that they’re referring to Collective Soul. Oh sure, they were never as heavy as Stone Temple Pilots or as giddy as the Gin Blossoms, but if Ed Roland and company were anything, they were maddeningly consistent. “Shine”, “Gel”, “December”, “Heavy”, “Run”—all of them perfect rock-radio staples. They were never overtly angry yet never overtly poppy either: they were the sound of alt-rock boiled down to its essence. Ever since the group’s 1994 debut for Atlantic, each new Collective Soul record was filled with catchy rock numbers and hooks that shamelessly flirted with full-on pop choruses. The Soul machine seemed unstoppable until 2000’s Blender—an album where the band sang a duet with Elton John, produced their rock songs within an inch of their lives, and, worst of all, finally conceded to the deadly stares of the full-on pop number. Needless to say—single “Why, Pt. 2” aside—it was an unmitigated disaster (hell, even the album’s artwork looked confused).
The group put together a greatest hits compilation before promptly leaving Atlantic in order to set up their own label: the El Music Group. In ‘04, they returned with Youth, an album that sold small in comparison to their ‘90s heyday, but which did incredibly well for an independent release (largely due to the strength of the single “Better Now”). Three years later, the Soul comes back with Afterwords, which—much like Stephen Soderbergh’s film Bubble—is getting more attention for the way in which it’s distributed instead of the actual content. Being as how the band now ran their own label, they struck a deal to release the album only through iTunes and Target Stores (though, incidentally, the album is near impossible to track down on Target’s own website). Now that it’s finally here, be prepared to be a little shocked: Collective Soul have made another Collective Soul album.
Afterwords is the sound of an alt-rock band whose commercial and artistic peak was well over a decade ago. Yet where Youth was wildly uneven, Afterwords is an all-around stronger affair. The hooks are immediate, the production as clean as a whistle, and—crucially—it comes off as effortless, an attribute which was sorely missing from the radio-conceding Youth. However, singer Ed Roland—who dominates the songwriting duties on this album—just can’t write songs like he used to. “Never Here Alone” comes off like an optimistic rewrite of Everclear’s “Santa Monica”, “Persuasion of You” wants to be a lot heavier than it actually is, and the Guster-lite closer, “Adore”, is marred by some rather odd lyrical stances (”She said she was tired of / Watching me just wilt and bleed / She said I’m like Jesus / I save those who do believe”). To top it off, the feather-light lead single “Hollywood” is absolutely innocuous—the sound of Fountains of Wayne at their most generic.
Yet once you get past these hurdles, the rest of the album is remarkably pleasurable. Nothing ever reaches the epic grandeur of “Shine” or the muted catharsis of “Run”, but when “All That I Know” hits you with its rubbery bassline and “do do do” backing vocals, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for the time when rock radio wasn’t just catchy but oddly exhilarating, all without ever having to resort to crass language. “What I Can Give You” rides a solid melody that never really climaxes, “Georgia Girl” sounds like a B-side from U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind period, and crunchy opener “New Vibration” nearly matches the energy and punch of “Heavy”, and easily out-rocks the entirety of their last album (though, let’s face it: that wasn’t too hard of a task to begin with).
Collective Soul, it can be argued, have been making the same album for their whole career. Afterwords is another ‘90s alt-rock album from a group that nearly personified the whole subgenre during its peak. It won’t change your life, nor will it go down in the Big Book of Rock History as a landmark achievement. No, Afterwords is a pop-rock disc that’s well done, consistent, and—ultimately—just plain fun. Unlike Hanson, however, Collective Soul never need to hide their name. Because, let’s face it: there are worse stigmas to have than “‘90s alt-rock giants”. Wear it proud, boys. Wear it proud.