Sunday, April 29, 2012

Listening Session: Big Star, Third

It wasn't until last year that I realized Big Star was the greatest American rock band ever. Shit, if they had released a few more albums, there wouldn't be that qualifier in the previous sentence. Alas, Big Star left us with only two properly released albums (#1 Album and Radio City) and a third album that was released long after the band broke up (Third/Sister Lovers). All three are terrific. Which one you consider the best says more about you than about the album.

I find Third the most rewarding. The first two albums have great, memorable songs and anthems And, unlike the third, they're infused with youthful energy. What the third album has in abundance is emotional depth. You could say it's mature. But it's not a tired, over-ripe kind of maturity (say, post-The River Springsteen). The album documents the time, or better yet the feeling, of having shed the false bravado of youth and discovering the humility of being oneself. And along with that, the inevitable sadness of life. That may sound depressing. Indeed, Third has a reputation, a misguided one, of being a desolate album. No doubt, such bleak songs as "Black Car" and "Holocaust" feed this reputation. But that is to ignore the sincere joy of "Thank You Friends" and "Jesus Christ". All told, the album's songs cover the wide emotional range of a person reaching adulthood. The only other "rock" album that compares in capturing the bittersweetness of growing up is Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

Emblematic of Alex Chilton's emotional approach is the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale". He turns the song upside down. Nico sings it as if cooly documenting a character. Chilton sings it like he was number 32 in the femme fatale's book. "Kangaroo" is even more up front emotionally as Chilton recalls the first time encountering an old love. It's got that same deep longing for youthful love that Morrison brings to Astral Weeks

All the songs on Third are great in their own way, with inventive arrangements and instrumentation (again, something this album shares with Astral Weeks). Each one could launch a hundred indie bands. They probably did, directly or indirectly. But unlike the songs of today's bloodless, zombie bands, the songs on Third succeed in profoundly connecting to life--the joys, the sadness and the mixed feelings in between.

(Postscript: There's never been a proper song sequence to Third, since Chilton abandoned the album and wasn't involved in its release. The original release on PVC in 1978 almost ruins the album by placing "Thank You Friends" as the final song, the equivalent of a tacked-on Hollywood happy ending. The Ardent test pressing from 1974, which was released last year on vinyl, has the album end with "Kangaroo" and "Take Care", which is more fitting. Although the test pressing isn't necessarily a finished product, it's probably the most authoritative source. Here's an album that each devotee can create one's own song sequence.)


  1. "It wasn't until last year that I realized Big Star was the greatest American rock band ever."

    That's because you didn't listen to Paul Westerberg.

  2. I did, but I didn't really get it. "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now", as another famous Minnesotan said.