In Space – Big Star
To prove to record store clerks and college radio DJ friends that their tastes come from careful study and judicious listening, anyone who reads music criticism — for such are the expectations of the musically elite — is expected to name drop Big Star from time to time. Formed around the songwriting talents of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Big Star signed to Ardent, a Memphis subsidiary of Stax, in 1971. Criminally forgotten great records have become a bit of a clichbut Big Star’s were among the first. Though they never earned much money, the band’s two cult classics, #1 Record and Radio City, have been thoroughly soaked with critical drool. Stax’s mercilessly slow failure assured the same for the band, but the label’s distribution and marketing problems weren’t what ultimately led to Big Star’s commercial crumble.
In fact, the very thing for which Big Star are presently deified was their downfall at the time. During an era when music audiences were stampeding themselves into a bloody mess for the thundering drums and screeching guitar solos of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Big Star were mixing the sugary melodies of the Beatles with the rougher edges of bands like the Velvet Underground. Though critics ate it up, Big Star’s simple confections placed them between arena rock and punk’s rising hard place. In an age where rock and roll was moving on to bigger and heavier things, Big Star’s song-based style must have seemed, at least to radio audiences, like a throwback.
Now, with their first official album in thirty years, Big Star are a throwback, and despite the respect they’ve garnered over the last thirty years, their new release isn’t likely to carry them beyond their current position among the late greats. In Space carries on the band’s formula of rusty-pointed pop hooks, but unlike their two masterpieces, which spit and bleed the sugar-coated bile and disaffection of youth, In Space rests a little too comfortably in the plush thrones of vindicated kings. While the formula is still solid, the aging variables don’t add up.
The plodding guitars of opener “Dony” give a clue as to the album’s shortcomings. While the syrupy melody carries Chilton’s familiar early '60s nostalgia, the rhythm drags its feet like a middle-aged father trying to keep up with his son’s adolescent shenanigans. While he too may have been a poet in his youth, he’s lost the fire, and the transparent lyrics are a desperate attempt at sincerity. “Best Chance” opens with some promise, but the sunny Beach Boys harmonies of “Turn My Back on the Sun,” cries its lament as it watches the next generation frolic in the sand it’s now stuck in: “something about it just don’t seem to be as fun.”
The stilted blues riff of “A Whole New Thing” is anything but, and “Mine Exclusively” and “Do You Wanna Make It” saunter into the club with their go-go influences emblazoned on their t-shirts, oblivious to the quizzical looks from the youthful crowd. The album’s ultimate crime, however, is the shamelessly pilfered Jackson 5 riff over which Chilton calls for a “Love Revolution” like a wedding singer at a high school prom.While a few tracks on In Space do manage to do justice to Big Star’s legacy — a single street lamp lights the lonely, dark brooding of “Lady Sweet,” and “February’s Quiet” is a perfectly simple love song — anyone who tells you that the new album is good is probably just saying what they think they’re supposed to. In Space is a disappointment, but it doesn’t diminish past accomplishments. Some will complain that Chilton and Company have tarnished their record, but in six months, all the complaints about In Space will merely be tacked on to the countless encyclopedic fawnings that already fill the world’s music blogs and resource sites.
Every man should be forgiven one last grasp for his youth. The irony is that while this record sounds pitifully old, the old ones just sound newer and fresher by comparison. Middle age crises usually end in acceptance, not catastrophe, and as long as this one ends here, Big Star is welcome home whenever they’re ready.