Over two decades on, Failure remains a rewarding listen, steeped in its time yet sweetly out of place.
The general perception of the music that came from the Pacific Northwest circa Grunge will likely suffer continued oversimplification as time passes, but, even alongside their melodic PopLlama peers the Young Fresh Fellows and the Fastbacks (all three bands would release records on the label), the Posies still stood apart. An idiosyncrasy in an already idiosyncratic scene, perhaps geography was at least partly responsible. Bellingham, Washington, where core members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow hailed from, is about as far flung as cities in the United States get; a college town tucked in the northwest corner of the country roughly 20 miles from the Canadian border. The preternaturally gifted songwriting duo was certainly clued in to the times, and Failure wasn’t born in a bubble by any means, but today it sounds nourished by individual imagination without the hindrance of self-consciousness.
Failure is, as great debuts sometimes go, a product of its time yet sweetly out of place. In an interview with the website FaceCulture from 2011, around the release of their most recent studio album, Blood/Candy, Jon Auer characterized their early records as being young and naïve, “like having your high school yearbook photo…on display, for sale, for the rest of your life.” Forgiving the artists’ humility toward his own work, that ‘young and naïve’ quality is part of the charm and value that Failure’s reissue offers to new listeners as well as old returning fans.
Auer and Stringfellow were still in their teens when they began putting together the demos that would become their breakthrough in a makeshift eight-track studio named Nor’Sound that they set up in the basement of Auer’s parents’ house. The original idea was to use the recordings to lure in other band members, but the results transcended those intentions. Reflecting the age of its creators, Failure is curious about the different roads that lay before it and eager to explore its options. Even by Dear 23, the band’s major label follow up, the Posies’ sound was solidifying. On nowhere else but Failure can you find the band trying out a “Mirror in the Bathroom”-style riff (opener “Blind Eyes Open”) before swinging into the slow-fast croon and gallop of ‘The Longest Line”.
The songwriting consistency they would arrive at with their classic run of DGC albums in the 1990’s surely helped clarify the band to wider audiences, but, Failure’s title aside, they would never again sound so optimistic. Musically speaking, that is. Lyrically, the Posies always had a conspicuously advanced-for-their-age sense of weariness. “I've spent half of my life in this god awful place / And I dare say I've only grown older / I've had all I can take with patience and kindness / I can't wait in this line any longer” goes “The Longest Line”, its perspective peculiar for a pair of young men not long out of high school. The kitchen sink drama of “Ironing Tuesdays”, with its recounting of money squabbles and humble domestic beginnings (“Washing Saturdays/And ironing Tuesdays”), is another such example, and also a telltale sign of the English influence over Failure.
For one, the presence of XTC pervades; as the liner notes point out, an instrumental version of “At Least for Now” included in the bonus material even kicks off with a guitar line nicked from XTC’s “All of a Sudden”. A standout track, the steady strumming “At Least For Now” owes a nod not just to Andy Partridge but to the clean and open sound preferred by Prefab Sprout and the like as well. Factor in similar signposts like the aforementioned hint of the English Beat, as well as the wonderful back cover photo of Auer and Stringfellow clad in leather jackets and Robert Smith coifs (thankfully retained on this reissue), and the fingerprints of Anglophilia feel indelible.
Again, geography might be a factor; Britain and the Pacific Northwest share a dour climate, if nothing else. But it’s also easy to forget that, current popular nostalgia for Britpop notwithstanding, the 1980’s was effectively the last time in which the UK’s contemporary pop music landscape had an outsized influence on the US market. Not that too many bands on this side of the pond took their cues from the Housemartins and the Railway Children back in the day, and maybe it really was a significant anomaly for a couple of American kids to have those kinds of records in their collection next to the Replacements and Big Star. Either way, such a balance would begin to shift more with each subsequent Posies LP up through the jagged, underrated Amazing Disgrace.
As we know, the Posies ultimately took the notion of being next in line for the American power pop throne quite sincerely. It's not often that a band so well situated as the heir to a predecessor's legacy actually goes to the logical conclusion of becoming that predecessor, but that is effectively what Auer and Stringfellow did with their part in the resurrection of Big Star. With other artists such a move might have come across as self-aggrandizing, but from the Posies it always felt like an earnest extension of their place in the guitar rock-pop tradition.
As “Ironing Tuesdays” recounts, “All of these luxuries we have / They're just ornamental / And whether we have them or not / We can still afford to be sentimental”, and perhaps the Posies are well poised for the loving reissue treatment because of their own sentimental streak. Outside of the music itself, that streak can even be seen in how, be it by design or by fate, the band came home to roost at PopLlama for one last Success a tidy ten years after Failure. Ultimately, though, Success proved to be a conscious capstone album that didn’t manage to stay in place for very long before the new millennium brought a pair of live albums (one electric, one acoustic), followed by a handful of new material in 2001 via the Nice Cheekbones and a Ph.D. EP.
One of Omnivore’s neatest ideas for this reissue was to dedicate an entire page of the liner notes to a selection of letters concerning the then-new band sent to Dawn Anderson’s Backlash fanzine (which ran from 1987 to 1991). Compiled, the letters amount to more than just a comments section that took too much time and postage stamps to maintain, they also show that the Posies were destined for bigger things from the beginning. “Who are The Posies and why are they so good that everyone hates them?” goes a letter from ‘Cid G. Street’, encapsulating both the polarizing effect of an artists’ ascent and also the quintessential (for the time period, anyway) ‘Seattle’ reaction to the mere idea of commercial success.
Auer and Stringfellow, though, always seemed a bit more concerned with each other’s approval than with accumulating popular acclaim. On their acoustic live album, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In, in between touching takes on “I May Hate You Sometimes” and Amazing Disgrace’s “Please Return It”, Auer explains to the audience, “That last song I kind of wrote about him, and I guess this next song he kind of wrote about me, so we’re a couple of sick f—ks.” In that light, the sing-along middle eight in the former -- “I can’t be everything to everybody/Can I at least be something to you?” – takes on a different shade of codependency. Of Failure’s dozen gems, two have remained almost permanently embedded in the Posies’ set list: “I May Hate You Sometimes” and its counterpart, “Believe In Something Other (Than Yourself)”. Not only did this pair of songs end up pointing the way forward for the band’s signature style, together they also provide an emotional backstory, clues to why even when they tried to break up, it didn’t stick for long. To wit, “Do you really believe that any man is an island?/Well if you do then you’re about to be stranded, man”.