by Noah Kucij
In this blog’s debut list, let me see what I can do to offend you right out the gate…OK, I think my number 1 should do it. But here’s the thing: We’re not all born with a full head of hair, and not every band cuts a gem of a record the first time around. Second and third and fourth albums tend to be classics, while debuts are often naive and uneven. These five first efforts have always hit my ears as the urgent, cathartic, years-in-the-making works of true talents — sometimes flashes of greatness soon dimmed, sometimes sneak peaks at greatness to come.
Forget everything you know about paved paradises and hair extensions, and just listen for a minute. This band, God knows how, snapped the lid on one perfect firefly before they slid into discord and self-parody. They seized an early-‘90s moment when it was OK to play mandolins and Hammonds, not for nostalgic yuks but with urgency and artistry, and on that sonic palette, Adam Duritz painted one of rock’s most lushly detailed, verbally savvy portraits of longing. In “A Murder of One,” the sweet-and-stalkerish closing track, he bursts into a room full of upbeat, jangling pop and croaks, “Blue morning, blue morning, wrapped in strands of fist and bone / Curiosity, Kitten, doesn’t have to mean you’re on your own / You can look outside your window, he doesn’t have to know / We can talk awhile, baby, we can take it nice and slow.” That’s how uncomfortably intimate yet highly crafted this album feels from first note to last. It’s where I go when I want to remember that failure and self-pity can be distilled into something exquisite.
At some point, the Boss we had anointed would inevitably struggle to be the underdog we needed him to be. You can hear a little wind whistling through that brilliant disguise even by the Darkness-River-Nebraska era, and Bruce admits to as much in 1992’s “Better Days,” calling himself “A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” No such psychic conflict in Greetings, though: the singer of these songs is undeniably himself, a brilliant young ruffian deeply in love with the language he speaks and the corner of earth he stomps on. I love how full of words this album is – from “Madmen drummers bummers and Indians in the summer,” it’s off to the races – but this isn’t mere next-Dylan shuck-and-jive. “Spirit In The Night” is a classic of youthful debauchery and an early Clarence Clemons signature. “For You” and “Mary Queen of Arkansas” set the stage for subsequent all-time-great rock courtships like “Rosalita” and “Thunder Road,” but weirder: Bruce sings to Mary, in Astral Weeks-ish cadences, lines like “You’re not man enough for me to hate, or woman enough for kissing.” Rough around the edges and over-exuberant, this is exactly what a Bruce debut should be.
3. Joni Mitchell, Song to a Seagull (1968)
The critics have long since spoken: Rock is a man’s world, ego and libido are fail-proof muses, innovation is more important than craft, and the blues is the most authentic frame of reference for pop songs. Which leaves Joni Mitchell, the high-minded, classically trained, arrestingly un-male Saskatchewan prairie bard. History has been kind to Blue, and Court and Spark had commercial legs, but so much of Mitchell’s great catalog is mostly ignored. Her first album is one of her best: its lyrics are ambitious and detail-drenched, and its melodies run circles around you. But please, by all means, go listen to Nevermind or Horses for the thousandth time.
This is where my lyrics bias really gets out of control. I don’t think Cohen is an especially great singer (unlike the oft-maligned Dylan, who sounds like an angel to me), and the instrumentation (strings, hurdy-gurdies and bell choirs ahoy!) has not aged well. But oh my God: “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.” Track-for-track, the poetry of the first two-thirds of this record may be unparalleled in all of recorded music, by turns tender, shamanic, funny, and dark. You just have to ignore the production and the last song or three and you’ve got a masterpiece.
While I’m obsessing over lyrics, let me just note what didn’t occur to me until now: Eddie Vedder is the Trent Dilfer of songwriters. Just make the words vaguely thematic and often inaudible, and let the ground-and-pound take over. I mean, does anybody know what “Porch” or “Garden” is about? Does anybody care? Now, let me state the obvious: 1. The guys in this band can really play their instruments. 2. The singer will scream his lungs out till it fills this room. 3. The album is not as great as it was when you were fourteen. But it’s still great.