When one flips through the liner notes of Complete Third, one could come to a distinct realization: for all of the ink printed and theories presented behind the intent of Big Star’s shambolic third album, the one person who cared the least about any of it may have been Alex Chilton himself. To hear friends and associates tell it, Chilton rarely talked about the drug-fueled late-night recording sessions with Jim Dickinson and a host of utterly confused session players, and the reunited version of Big Star that toured in the ‘90s and ‘00s rarely played cuts from the album, often at Chilton’s insistence. But people really care about Third (or Sister Lovers; Chilton was ambivalent about the album’s title or even if it was a Big Star album to begin with). Hell, a star-studded tour celebrating the album took place only a few years ago. And here, courtesy of Omnivore Recordings, is perhaps the greatest monument erected to Big Star’s third album yet: a compilation of every recorded take from the sessions that birthed Third.
Complete Third is laid out in a clever manner. Rather than putting the completed album at the beginning of the set, we are instead given a chronological journey through the recording process, from Chilton’s solo demos to the completed product. Anyone looking to track the slow decay of Chilton’s mind may be disappointed; aside from a few stops and starts, the takes presented on Complete Third are as professional and solid as one gets. What does come across in the solo demos is the sense of despair and loneliness that permeates the record. The original demo of “Kanga Roo” (presented here as “Like St. Joan”) is more aching and desperate than the original (if that’s possible), and the same goes for the eternally bleak “Holocaust”. Even supposedly joyous songs don’t escape; the bitterness that runs barely underneath the surface of “Thank You Friends” rises from subtext to text with just Chilton and a guitar. While these recordings are of the barest of bones, they’re still awfully close to the final product; this presents a different version of the Third sessions than the story we’re used to, in which Chilton was a wild man slowly unraveling with each take. If these demos are anything to go by, Chilton was pretty well unraveled from the start.
Once the early demos wrap up, Complete Third presents Chilton as a man torn between two creative guides, one old and one new. During the course of these sessions, Chilton worked with both longtime Big Star producer John Fry and Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, and the two had very different visions for how this record was supposed to sound. Reportedly, Dickinson encouraged Chilton’s off-kilter tendencies, and that’s more than presented in his rough mixes of “Take Care” and “Nightime”, which seem to be falling apart at the seams. He also pushes Chilton’s vocals higher into the mix on his version of “Holocaust”, which serves to make a bleak song even more isolated and desolate. Fry, meanwhile, tried to pull Chilton away from the abyss, and his work hints at an attempt to get Big Star to sound like Big Star again. With Fry at the helm, “Nightime” sounds full and rich, and an early version of “Stroke It, Noel” (under the working title “Lovely Day”) sounds as if it belonged on #1 Record. But even Fry’s Anglophilic sensibilities and deft touch for guitar pop couldn’t save Third from being anything but an unmarketable mess in the end, one that he eventually washed his hands of completely.
In the end, though, Third lives on as an unlikely masterpiece. It may not be an easy listen, but that’s really the point. As this collection makes clear, Chilton was confronting something dark inside of himself, and he clearly meant to convey it in a way that would make any listener feel uneasy. What’s more, Complete Third reveals that this wasn’t a Syd Barrett-esque chronicling of psychosis in the studio, but a carefully crafted work of art. In some ways, Third was Chilton living out the old axiom about art and how it is only ever abandoned, never completed. Perhaps, then, it was regret that kept Chilton from ever really going back to this record. Either way, what he made was something truly special, right from the very beginning.