One good thing about music / When it hits you, you feel no pain / Hit me with music.
—Bob Marley, “Trenchtown Rock”
Where were you when you heard that Brad Nowell died?
Truth is, most people don’t know, because at the time, most people didn’t much care. Another wannabe rock god drowns himself in heroin, and the world keeps spinning. Except this time, it was different. His bandmates knew it, Sublime’s rather large local cadré of fans and supporters knew it, and even MCA had a hunch, signing him to the big-money record deal that eventually probably financed his tragic overdose at the age of 28. Bradley Nowell had the voice, the charisma, and the will to be absolutely huge in the music business, and for a short time, he was. That short time was the time surrounding the release of Sublime’s one and only proper major label album, 1996’s Sublime, its title changed from Killin’ It for obvious reasons.
Short of restoring that original title, Universal Records’ 10-year anniversary reprint of that now-classic 1996 album has the ghost of Bradley Nowell all over it—most obviously in its videos, all of which feature low quality footage of Nowell, in concert and in life. Cutting the low-quality video in with the high production values that a major label can afford to buy, gives most of the visuals we have of Nowell something of a spiritual quality, as we hear his voice, and we see him amidst his friends and bandmates, but he’s just a little bit fuzzed out. He became a cautionary tale in death, that ghostly presence hovering over even lighthearted tracks like “What I Got” and “Santeria”, as if to say “this is what could happen to you”, and “can you imagine what might have been?”
And oh, what might have been.
Sublime was never a perfect album, and this reissue doesn’t change that. What this 10th Anniversary Edition does do, however, is make Sublime seem like a better album than it was, simply by shuffling the tracks around and tacking a bonus cover of Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” (one of two Marley covers in the package) onto the beginning. Supposedly, this is the tracklist that Nowell originally intended for the album to have, and though the album is still wildly uneven, it now puts most of the most radio-ready material at the beginning, leaving most of the ventures into hardcore punk and straight-up reggae for the latter half of the disc. The record company’s vision of Sublime seemed to be that it should feature the Big Hit Single toward the beginning, and what came after it would just be a bunch of songs. The feel of this album actually seems to flow, transitioning gracefully from tightly-wound hip-hop-influenced ska-pop to silly songs that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the band’s first two independent albums. It’s an order that actually manages to first point out every reason why Sublime was an utter success, while then burning down the house and rolling a joint with the ashes.
Fun as the crazy side of Sublime is, however, it is still that first half that continues to point out just what an interesting, charismatic musical mind Nowell could have been if he’d continued to develop his craft. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear a smoothly-sung, Gershwin-borrowing hip-hop track about a bad relationship, à la “Doin’ Time” (which here actually features the original lyric of “Doin’ time, and the livin’s easy”)? Finding and utilizing a DJ, pushed Sublime past the point of cult band into near-universal acceptance, and that DJ shows up to enhance that track and others, like the laid-back-and-wonderful “What I Got” and the glib-turned-angry tribute to the Rodney King riots that is “April 29th, 1992 (Miami)”, both now revered as seminal Sublime cuts, even as their aesthetic is the virtual opposite of early lo-fi hits like “Date Rape” and “Saw Red” (here on the second disc in mellow, acoustic form). Even the latter half, however, has its moments—the can’t-sit-still time changes of “Seed” (itself a testament to the tight musicianship of bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bob Gaugh), the sex romp that is “Caress Me Down”, and the slacker-style ode to doing nothing, “Burritos”, are all fantastic listens as well, and fit the fun-loving, irreverent side of the band nicely. It would be one’s hope that they would never lose this side of their personality, as it is the duality between the careful construction of the hits and the intentionally sloppy form of the deep cuts that really gives Sublime such a unique personality.
It is only the “Reprise” of “What I Got” that sticks out as something that sounds like a record company’s insistence for a radio hit—namely, all of the interesting little touches of the original (the swing beat, the DJ scratches) are removed for the sake of a song that wouldn’t sound out of place next to, say, Beck on modern rock radio. But then, Nowell certainly wanted his music to be heard by as many people as possible, and perhaps simply appeasing the folks who paid the bills was the best way to do that ... after all, that “Reprise” did end up turning into the version of the song that Joe Blow on the street could sing along to. Whatever works, right?
The bonus disc is largely extraneous, and adds little to the original album. It features a few previously available remixes of “Doin’ Time”, some karaoke tracks, some acoustic bits (of which the cover of Marley’s “Zimbabwe” particularly resonates), inferior “alternate versions” of “April 29, 1992” and “What I Got”, and two bonus tracks kicking things off (one of which, “Superstar Punani”, can already be found on the band’s rarities collection Second Hand Smoke). This leaves only the disc-opening “I Love My Dog”, one of Nowell’s many tributes to his beloved Lou Dog as the only truly new studio track here, and its take on Bad Brains’ “I Love I Jah” is cute and heartfelt, if not particularly dynamic or impressive. Surely, this second disc is only required for the hardest of diehard fans, though it’s certainly the case that those are the fans that this collection is aimed at anyway, the ones who would want Nowell’s every living wish granted and every sung note released.
Still, while this 10th Anniversary Edition of Sublime arguably doesn’t add all that much to the Sublime legacy, it doesn’t detract from it, either. If anything, the album proper is improved, and the bonuses, treated as such, are just fine. What it does most effectively, however, is remind us once more of just what can be lost in the pursuit of better living through chemistry.
Here’s to your music, Brad. Hope you’re enjoying the big LBC in the sky.