A Tragedy Requires a Little Greatness to Begin With: Harvey Danger's Unsung Masterpiece
In 1998, Seattle rock group Harvey Danger had a hit song with "Flagpole Sitta", a hyper-literate alt-rock dissection of the stupidity of the modern age. They were written off as one-hit-wonders. Two years later, they released one of the best albums of the decade. No, really.
After a few rapid-fire rockabilly guitar licks, lead singer Sean Nelson opens his mouth, and out pours one of the most delightfully incensed opening lines of any album in recent memory:
I had a lovely brunch with Jesus Christ
He said two words about inanity: "fundamental Christianity"
The food was ver-ry nice!
But then he had to go and die for my sings and stuck my ass with the check
Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy
Go near an open window and that'll be the end of me
Thus, the stage is set for Harvey Danger's King James Version, their 2000 follow-up to the group's defining single "Flagpole Sitta", and -- truly -- one of the best rock albums of the past decade.
Yet, wait: weren't Harvey Danger just late '90s one-hit-wonders? Why should we care about the follow-up albums of long-forgotten alt-rock bands, much less give a "second shot" to a group who already had their proverbial 15 minutes of fame? The answer is simple, really: it is so very (very) easy for us -- critics, listeners, casual fans, and snobs alike -- to write off bands for one achievement alone, especially if said band is of the '90s rock variety. It's not that any of us are giving artistic demerits to groups like Del Amitri or Deep Blue Something, but it's easy for us to forget that there are people out there who know Blind Melon only for "No Rain", XTC only for "Dear God", and Jane's Addiction only for "Been Caught Stealing". For groups like XTC and Jane's Addiction especially, their sole "major pop hit" is nowhere near indicative as to what's contained in their rich and storied back catalogs, and it's so easy to forget that for some of us, it's those very "hit singles" that got us turned on to these bands in the first place.
With that in mind, perhaps it'd be worth seeing what Harvey Danger had done outside of "Flagpole Sitta". A quick go-through of their first album, 1998's Where Have all the Merrymakers Gone?, shows a group that -- though ready to rock at the drop of an (old) hat -- were actually a bit more literate than their grungy peers, opening number "Carlotta Valdez" turning out to be a line-by-line homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo for example. Unexpected? Absolutely. Distinctive? Without question. Though second single "Private Helicopter" was an interesting look at the way that interpersonal relationships dissolve, perhaps the most telling line of Harvey Danger's debut album was a lyrical barb (during the song "Wolly Muffler") that was no doubt reserved for their pompous stadium-rocking peers: "So if you've got greatness in you / Would you do us all a favor / And keep it to yourself?"
Their own greatness, however, was not to be contained. Even if the fierce "Flagpole Sitta" was the group's only hit at the time, they remained undeterred in their quest for glory, doing fun and interesting things like contributing a fantastic, string-laced cover of the English Beat's jumpy "Save It for Later" to the 200 Cigarettes soundtrack (with the accompanying video being arguably more entertaining than the film itself). Knowing that they now had an audience, Nelson -- along with guitarist Jeff Lin, bassist Aaron Huffman, and drummer Evan Sult (now of the Bound Stems) -- worked closely with Merrymakers producer John Goodmanson on the follow-up. When I interviewed Nelson back in 2008 about it, he described King James Version as "an album that I personally and we collectively invested in completely. We really put all we had into it, and more, and just never lost faith that it was going to advance us artistically and somehow vindicate the compromised success of the first album."
Unfortunately, Nelson notes that one year later, "it was like it never happened."
Caught in the middle of the major-label reshuffling that happened at the start of the new millennium, the band had to wait well over a year before King James Version even got released. Though a video was made for the single "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo" (which appears at the end of this article), practically no one noticed, just as how the band was supposed to go on tour with the Pretenders at the time, though a lack of label support resulted in it not going through. A few critics wrote some kind words, but by and large King James Version simply slipped through the cracks of rock radio and ended up collecting dust in thousands of record stores across the country. The band went on "indefinite hiatus" the following year, only returning in 2005 to independently release the more piano-based Little By Little, which was a part of a pre-In Rainbows "free net release" promotion, the band going forward with this idea simply because they wanted to get as many people as they could to listen to it. According to Nelson, they reached a quarter million people with that promo before getting the whole thing re-released on Kill Rock Stars.
Even though Little By Little garnered considerable acclaim and made the band become known for more than just "Flagpole Sitta", it's amazing how many people have glossed over King James Version altogether. When you sit down and think about it, though, it's not really that surprising: wedged between their "commercial peak" and "artistic rebirth," this little album got lost due to unfortunate circumstance more than anything else. Yet, as the years have gone on, it's gradually found one hell of an audience. People have picked up it casually -- via recommendations from friends, impulse budget-bin purchases, or otherwise -- and, slowly and surely over the years, the album got discovered as what it is: one of the greatest rock albums of the decade.
Of course, claiming this album is one of the best of the decade is a bold declaration no matter what rock critic niche it comes from (and to be brutally frank, as good as Merrymakers and Little are, neither can be considered "instant classics" by any means). In listening to King James straight through, it may not seem all that revolutionary, and that's largely because, well, it's not. The guys aren't doing anything different or special this time out: it's still technically an "alt-rock" record, but it's less grungy than Merrymakers and frighteningly more immediate than the already-poppy Little was, bridging the gap between their rock and pop instincts near-perfectly. The songs have hooks and choruses and verses (shock!) and these sections were made by guitars and bass and drums and pianos (double shock!); it is, in short, the sound of a rock band making rock songs. Yet something is going on beneath the surface, something that can't be bought with major-label dollars or carbon-copied onto another group: what we get with King James Version it's the sound of a group of creative individuals finally coming into their own and finding their collective voice.
And what a voice it is.
Listening to "Flagpole Sitta" now, it's truly amazing not only how well it holds up nearly a decade after its initial release, but how it still remains something of a cultural touchstone, inspiring gigantic office-wide singalongs and terrible hardcore-rock covers alike. More than anything, though, "Flagpole" is more like the sneak preview for what King James Version ultimately became: a showcase for Sean Nelson, one of the most acidic wits this side of peak-era Jarvis Cocker.
Yet Nelson's grudges are not just with pop idols or the hypocrisy of modern society (though these targets certainly aren't safe, Nelson even declaring that "fashion is the art of brainwashing the proud" on the fiery "This is the Thrilling Conversation You've Been Waiting For"). No, he reserves his most cutting observations for himself. Though pop music has managed to cover virtually every aspect of romantic relationships from just about every angle, few frontman have ever cut them apart with such intellect as Nelson does on "Why I'm Lonely", which itself sets the following words to a half-sexy/half-sorrowful minimalist groove the Spoon would be proud of:
Feelings I've had too often
Still no plan in place to soften
The inevitable blow
The rituals we know
And with the right revolting piety of tone
The word "freedom"
Can make you wanna lock yourself in a deep dark dungeon
But everybody follows pleasure
Everybody gets somewhere
I wish I could be less aware
Now it's absolutely clear to me
That solitude is not the same as singularity
... but that's not why I'm lonely
Yet Nelson's knack for capturing loneliness and emotional isolation isn't reserved for just himself. Edith, the focus of the Byrds-aping "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo", rides around the Wild West in her mind while slaving away at mindless temp jobs. Though she finds a temporary mate in the form of a man named Norman, he appears to want nothing more than to get her mind focused on "real things" instead of her lasso-laced pipe dreams:
Norman says that you should take a Valium (or maybe something stronger)
'cos he doesn't understand how you get so excited watching The Lusty Men
"The Marlboro Man died of cancer ... and he wasn't exactly a rocket scientist when he was healthy
Ha ha ha"
She took one last gulp of his soft city condescension
And blasted off from his little launch pad to parts west!
As you may have no doubt noticed, Nelson's knack for detail is uncanny. Though some would argue that it's almost obsessively so, there's a strong purpose to such specificity: it creates a wholly relatable experience. In his second book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman notes on how multiple pop songs have made specific lyrical mention of Tastee Freezes -- specifically Trisha Yearwood's "She's in Love with the Boy" and John Mellencamp on "Jack and Diane" -- and, in doing so, has actually managed to personalize what is actually a universal setting:
"Tastee Freezes are the places that remind you of a how isolated you are; a Tastee Freeze is like an oasis. And even though they're everywhere, you don't realize that until you move away. It's a circular reality: Tastee Freezes exist where people are disconnected from the rest of the world -- and that very disconnection makes them all seem autonomous. So when Yearwood mentions this kind of coquettish proposal between two overtly archetypical teenagers, it cuts an amazingly wide swath. It's what David Berman means when he says that Wal-Mart country reflects the lives of its audience. There are thousands of people who still can't believe Trish Yearwood perfectly described the teenage experience of someone they know in real life. And the amazing thing is that they're all correct." [p.181]
Thus, when cellos are brought in for the positively heartbreaking piano ballad "Pike St./Park Slope", Nelson touches on those youthful thoughts of defiance that we all had at one point or another, thinking that the world just wasn't meant for us when in fact we're all just a part of the same routine that's been played out dozens of times before:
Drive across the country
Tell your story walking
No one's keeping you captive
In the town that let you down (so sorry)
Blame it on the television
Blame it on the company
Don't blame it on the fundamental fact
That no one owes you something
"I've come about my share
I only want what's fair
Anyone who knows me know that I'm not greedy
Like anybody else
I wanna pay my dues
I only want someone to tell me who to make the check out to"
Yet the chorus is what gets us the most: "Maybe we can runaway and start a little repertory movie house or something". Again, the specificity of detail is what drives the point home. It's not just that he's running away with his beloved: it's the fact that he wants to run away with his beloved to do something, to start a little repertory movie house where they can keep in close company while exploring their love of avant-garde cinema or something that's as equally romantic in nature and fiscally unrealistic. There's a hope in these lines, but it's undercut by the sense of finite time that surrounds it: that repertory movie house cannot last forever, but it's a fun idea for right now, isn't it darling? That one line conjures up as much happiness as it does sadness, able to be read into and dissected just as easily as it can be readily dismissed (which, let's face it, is a hallmark of all great lyricists: Dylan conjures up as much critical analysis as he does complete and total indifference).
King James Version isn't all sad introversion, though. In fact, there are times when it's flat-out hilarious. Some lines get funnier the more you revisit them, particularly with tracks like "You Miss the Point Completely I Get the Point Exactly" (which contains the gem "One awkward conversation can ruin my whole day / In the company of strangers with some vulgar shit to say") and "Loyalty BLDG." ("If you're looking for somebody to blame / I recommend the dead 'cos they never talk back"). Like a good Woody Allen flick, King James Version is rife with fantastic one-liners ("Pomposity is when you always think you're right / Arrogance is when you know"), great use of simile ("I am the mustard on the wedding dress / The weevil in the watercress"), and just delightfully obtuse imagery ("The moon is a toenail / The stars are a guardrail / My heart is a sand pail / ... And you're Toluca Lake"). You can try to catch everything in one go, but repeated spins reveal even more polished words of wit: it's a rare kind of album that almost feels like a smart-ass post-modern novella set to music (and yes, the lyric sheet on the original CD release even has sarcastic footnotes, completely self-aware of what they are).
As tempting as it is to try and sum up the greatness of this disc simply by copying and pasting the complete lyric sheet right here, nothing can make up for the experience of hearing the album itself, the words playing in tandem with the rest of the band (who have never sounded better), and especially with Nelson's occasionally-maniacal delivery, able to be wildly sarcastic at one moment and remarkably sweet the next. It's through these performances that Nelson's lyrics -- well-versed in heartbreak and heavy on acidic barbs -- wind up stealing the show. There's not a word that feels out of place, and there's not an emotion that isn't covered in its 47-minute run-time. As unassuming as it is on the surface (or during the first listen, for that matter), King James Version is a rock album that delivers on virtually every front: it's hilarious, exciting, solemn, sexy, smart, explosive, romantic, and endlessly quotable -- sometimes all at once.
"At various points, including the time before it came out originally, there have been plans to release or re-release KJV in a deluxe edition (including a bonus disc of B-sides, demos and rarities called "Dead Sea Scrolls") on Barsuk Records, a label that I am a partner in. But for a variety of boring businessy reasons (that can be blamed, predictably, on a major entertainment corporation), it seems like it isn't going to happen (which fucking kills me in all candor — I'd at least like to see a version of Tae Won Yu's cover art that employs the intended shade of blue). Maybe one day." --Sean Nelson [6.21.08]
Back in late-May of 2009, a message appeared on Harvey Danger's website indicating that the band was -- after 15 years -- finally throwing in the towel and breaking up. They played their last show in late August in Seattle, where they got their start. During that aforementioned interview I conducted with Nelson back in 2008, he gave mention as to what life King James Version has taken on for him personally: "I'd met lots of people over the years who told me they knew of the album, had bought it for a penny on eBay, had found it one evening out someone's coffee table, had discovered an entire landfill made out of it, and it always made me grateful. But really going out into the world and seeing the way people had internalized the songs, knew every word, leaped for joy when the opening chords rang out -- it simply alleviated several years' worth of compounded anxiety and allowed me to move on. And away from music in a certain regard. Not entirely, but certainly further away than I thought I ever would go." Nearly a decade after its initial release, it's amazing how potent and powerful King James Version remains, getting better with each passing year like a fine wine. The only tragedy is that more people haven't heard this incredible little album, but, as Nelson himself says during "(Theme from) Carjack Fever": a tragedy requires a little greatness to begin with ...
And few things are greater than this.