Dear 23 is the sort of record that invites the kind of re-evaluation prompted by a reissue or re-release. The second album from the Posies has the dubious distinction of being both Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow’s major label debut and of being the album that preceded their big breakthrough. Thus, it doesn’t have the indie cache of Failure or the band’s early cassettes, nor does it have the immediacy and hit singles of Frosting on the Beater. With this, Omnivore’s typically loving re-release, Dear 23 is poised to receive a new level of respect. But does this album — the black sheep in the Posies near-perfect streak of early albums — deserve to be elevated to the level of its better-known peers?
As an album, Dear 23 has always suffered to the ears more for its production than for its songwriting. The album — produced by John Leckie, who had just worked on the Stone Roses’ self-titled debut and who was only a few years away from helming Radiohead’s The Bends — was the Posies’ first album on a major label, and many of the choices and flourishes added to the album seem to have been done to give the band a more commercial edge. To modern ears, though, this only serves to date the album, and the remaster does little to change that. Worse still, the canned guitars make the album’s worst moment — the prolonged jam “Flood of Sunshine” — into a nigh-unbearable dirge of air-guitar cheese.
What’s a real shame, though, is that Dear 23‘s studio missteps end up taking away from what is actually a solid set of songs from Auer and Stringfellow. While the compositions on Dear 23 maybe don’t quite match up to what the pair would eventually conjure up on their next album, these are still very much the kind of tuneful, catchy power-pop songs that nod just enough to a long-forgotten pop past without sounding like pastiches. The hopped-up energy on display on “My Big Mouth” and “Golden Blunders” is enough to get anyone excited, and while the rest of the album tends to take things a bit slower, the band’s knack for an easy melody never abandons them.
That especially comes through on the demos included in this reissue, which show most of these songs without the heavy studio gloss added to them. (Also of note is the inclusion of covers of Big Star’s “Feel” and Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos”, a foreshadowing of the Posies’ eventual inclusion in a re-formed Big Star a few years later.) What’s clear is that the Posies were still enjoying a creative peak at the time of Dear 23, even if it’s hard to tell that from the finished product here.
From the beginning, the Posies wrote the kind of music that deserved to be presented to a wide audience; such was the mass appeal in their songs. While they would eventually get that moment in the sun (however brief), Dear 23 shows how difficult it can be to get that delicate balance right. Looking back, the album is an interesting curiosity with quite a bit to recommend about it, but one can only wonder what could have been.