Painfully earnest and soberly overwrought, for one album and one song in particular Live managed to convincingly sell the drama.
When discussing half-remembered post-grunge hits with my friend Dustin a few nights back (this happens more often than you would think), he argued that any greatest hits album released by the Pennsylvania quartet Live should simply contain a copy of the group’s 1994 album Throwing Copper inside. And, you know, I have to completely agree with that, and I think most everyone else would, too. Sorry, “Pain Lies on the Riverside”.
Oh, Live: stridently passionate, humorlessly sincere, and insufferably portentous, the band always had a habit of crossing the mark into becoming unbearably overwrought. Around before grunge had even penetrated popular consciousness, the members of Live were in fact ardent devotees of R.E.M., injecting their spiritually-tinged college rock with U2-sized bluster and self-importance as well as the occasional questionable white-funk bass lick. Forgive Pearl Jam, everyone: it was really Live who paved the way for Creed. Yet for one album the group managed to dial back its most grating tics, beef up the hook-per-song ratio, and turn out one of the most consistent rock albums of the ‘90s. Live coasted for a long time upon the goodwill generated by Throwing Copper—allowing the ensemble to vex rock radio with the likes of the leaden “Lakini’s Juice” and the atrocious Tricky team-up “Simple Creed”—yet the band’s second album holds up today better than you would expect, in large part due to the presence of industrial-strength hits “Selling the Drama”, “I Alone”, “Lightning Crashes”, and “All Over You”.
If you put me on the spot, I wouldn’t name the fourth Throwing Copper single “All Over You” as my favorite track from the album (that honor would go to the foreboding, intense ”I Alone”). Yet it’s the Live song I listen to the most, and I’ve found it’s one highly regarded whenever Live comes up in casual conversation. The reason is simple: it’s an exhilarating rocker that grabs the listener by the throat from that very first drum crash, knowing exactly when to pull back or ramp up the visceral experience to the next level. One moment singer Ed Kowalczyk is eeking out the words “Our love is / Like water / Pinned down and abused for being strange” in a vulnerable, almost alien voice; the next he’s wrenching out the chorus lines from the pit of his stomach with passionate intensity as grunge-inspired distorted guitars roar behind him. Far too many post-Nirvana alt-rockers used and abused the soft verse/loud chorus song formula without distinction. As Live demonstrates here, it’s not as simple as triggering the distortion pedal at the right moment: the band (and by extension, song itself) must subside or burst outward with explosive force with finely-tuned finesse, and that’s exactly what Live does.
Like any Live song, there’s at least one cringe-worthy moment of awkward self-expression here as Kowalczyk briefly bays “Baby now, baby now” in the lead-up to the bridge. The band instantly makes up for it launching into a pummeling breakdown that lurches with heavy metal-ish menace. Afterward, the song pulls back for the final verse, where Kowalczyk sings in his most straightforward delivery he’s yet displayed here. But then he growls those final verse lines, pointedly emphasizing, “Our love is / No other / Than me alone” before the band returns to full-on rock-out mode. The sensation is undeniably thrilling.
Live was never cool to begin with (the band was too unabashedly earnest in an age where apathy and irony were the rules of the day), and the long view of the group’s career painfully demonstrates there’s little to build a legacy upon beyond Throwing Copper. Yet as much as Live’s output is hampered by its hamfisted execution, whenever I listen to the outro of “All Over You”—wherein the slashing guitar chords lash outward one final time as Kowalczyk lets loose, ad-libbing wordless exaltations that spiral into the brain—I know I can confidently say there was an occasion when this band pulled it all off perfectly.