Silkworm's third album, produced by Steve Albini, gets the reissue treatment on its 20th anniversary.
Silkworm seems to be one of those bands where you just had to be there to truly appreciate their full impact and overall significance within the larger context of '90s indie rock. In Couldn’t You Wait? The Story of Silkworm, director Seth Pomeroy captures countless Silkworm peers and fans extolling the virtues of the band's overall greatness. Playing like a veritable who's who of '90s indie rock royalty, the talking head shots feature nearly every major name from the decade singing Silkworm's praises.
But in listening to the newly reissued Libertine and its added bonus tracks from the Marco Collins Sessions, it's somewhat hard to see what all the fuss is/was about. By no means a disappointment, the album merely feels very much of its time and, despite Steve Albini's exceptional production work, a little stale overall and more than a bit dated. All the usual early-to-mid-'90s indie rock tropes are present: dueling distorted guitars; rumbling bass; glacial tempos; angsty lyrics; somewhat buried slacker vocals; loud/soft dynamics. Taken within its original cultural context, one can see how it may have made more of an impression. Some twenty years removed and with innumerable similar acts having cropped up in the meantime, however, it lacks the visceral punch it may have once possessed.
This is unfortunately a common problem with influential or celebrated cult artists, however: so many others end up copping the original group's style that, by the time reissues start cropping up, it can be difficult to properly ascertain what exactly it was that made a group so special in the first place. The more music there is and the more a specific influence has permeated the musical landscape, the less exceptional the originals seem by contrast as they too ultimately begin to seem somewhat derivative. And unfortunately, without the benefit of time travel or having experienced specific pop cultural phenomena in real time, the average modern listener will never be able to properly contextualize influential artists' best work in order to gain the appropriate level of appreciation.
All of this aside, Libertine is essentially a solid set of mid-'90s indie rock and the last Silkworm album to feature the band operating as a quartet. With its somewhat leftfield lyrical content (World War II in album opener "There Is a Party in Warsaw Tonight"), slacker malaise and Gen X irony ("Oh How We Laughed") and strangled guitar soloing ("Grotto Of Miracles"), it has an overall aesthetic very much of its time, functioning as an aural time capsule for a very specific time and place. Unlike some perhaps more accessible, well-loved contemporary releases, Libertine fails to transcend its contextual trappings and essentially screams 1994.
Rarely rising above a glacial pace, the songs of Libertine feature plenty of fine guitar work and overall competent playing that often relies on function over form. This utilitarian approach coupled with the often interminably slow tempos and extended song lengths tends to drag things down and give the album a feeling of being overlong, however it also serves to elevate the truly great moments like "Wild In My Day". With its comparably brisk tempo and major key melody, it functions as a peak on an album more concerned with gently rolling terrain. Likewise, "Yen + Janet Forever" sticks out for its exceptional use of dynamic extremes, moving from a whisper to a throat-shredding scream with the accompanying instrumental arrangements following suit.
"Insider", the only track on the album to feature piano instead of guitar, is a brilliant, fragile ballad full of sadness and regret that allows the lyrics obscured on other tracks to be front and center. Draped by plaintive piano and hesitant, spare drums, "Insider" is an aural anomaly on an otherwise guitar-centric album and, due to this drastic stylistic shift, sticks out for both its toned-down approach and its beauty.
The real interest for seasoned Silkworm fans and neophytes alike will be the Marco Collins Sessions bonus tracks. Featuring the band in a stripped-down format of bass, drums, distortion-less electric and acoustic guitar, the songs are finally allowed to stand on their own in a manner lacking on Libertine proper. Here the lyrics come through loud and clear as the vocals are no longer buried in Albini's mix, giving the listener a front row seat to what proves to be a group of very strong songwriters, especially with the emotional fragility of "Couldn't You Wait" and "Raised By Tigers".
Listening to Libertine twenty years after its initial release, it's hard to see what all the fuss may have been about, but these closing tracks, along with an alternate take of "Grotto Of Miracles" with some truly inspired fretwork, help to give a brief glimpse into what the band was capable of in its prime. It's just too bad so many other groups have come along since, lessening the future impact of the original.