Who would have guessed that from the frozen Minneapolis winter would come the hottest pop album of 1998?
Since rising from the ashes of the classic art-pop band Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic had shown their promise with earlier efforts like Great Divide and the Pleasure EP. Although Rolling Stone declared Great Divide one of the best albums of 1996, the band had never had much commercial success (with minor exceptions like “F.N.T.” gathering occasional radio play). All that changed, of course, with a little single called “Closing Time”. When “Closing Time” hit the airwaves in spring 1998, it didn’t seem like it would ever go away. And the rest of the world, particularly the screaming girls, clued in to what Semisonic fans already knew: the low-key charm of the band was ready for the big time.
Interestingly, what succeeds about Feeling Strangely Fine (and I would argue the rest of Semisonic’s catalog as well) is the intimacy of the songs—and herein lies the paradox of Semisonic’s success. Dan Wilson’s lyrics come across as if he’s singing them to a private audience of one, and on the album his voice often takes on a quietness appropriate to the material. That months later he would be singing these songs to throngs of giddy teens (who would scream and point at Wilson when he sang “I know who I want to take me home” in concert) somehow belies the material itself.
Loosely based around the theme of romantic entanglement, Feeling Strangely Fine includes a representative moment for just about any emotion you can summon. You can almost chronicle the history of a relationship—or the longing after one—in the various songs on the album, and that makes it a good listen for just about any time or mood.
“Singing in My Sleep” is the perfect song for anyone who’s ever made or received a mix tape for/from that possible new someone. Mix tapes were the great seducer of a generation—the thought that went into the selection of each song, even the creation of the tape case itself, was a secret message sent and hopefully received. Wilson hits the nail on the head when he sings:
Got your tape and it changed my mind
Heard your voice in between the lines
Later, Wilson sings:
Now I’m falling in love too fast
With you or the songs you chose
This perfectly captures the ambiguity and thrill of the situation. Plus, there is the subtle beauty of the imagery:
I’ve been living in your cassette
It’s the modern equivalent
Singing up to a Capulet
On a balcony in your mind
Such lines attest to Wilson’s sustained prowess as a lyricist and make this song required material for any mix you make for potential new paramours from now on.
Lest anyone think Feeling Strangely Fine is all about the romantic sap, think again. Songs like “Never You Mind” chronicle the inevitable down times that come along with any relationship, and “This Will Be My Year” and “California” depart from the theme completely with two different takes on personal failure and chasing after dreams. What holds the album together are the undeniably catchy pop music (Semisonic has always had a great feel for this genre, but Nick Launay’s [Four Squirrels, Girls Against Boys] production hones their sound nicely), the low-key intelligence behind the lyrics, and the occasional quirky word play. Buy this CD for yourself today, and then let it continue to amaze you over the years.
// Notes from the Road
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