Note: This is a recurring series in which we ask our unimaginably young interns to review classic albums they've never heard before. Micah Loewinger just finished his internship at NPR Music last week, so we asked him to review Big Star's #1 Record.
I think I owe Jeff Tweedy a thank-you letter, or maybe a basket of assorted muffins and fruit. When I listened to A Ghost Is Born, I never looked at music the same way again. Finding a new band to get sick of is always an exciting experience, but in middle school, it was like discovering a goldmine in my backyard. Only instead of gold it was filled with baseball cards and video games.
I first found out about Big Star in a Wilco biography. Jeff Tweedy loved the band and even helped out with a tribute album, Big Star Small World. I read the book a while ago, but only recently did I actually listen to a Big Star album. When I began listening to #1 Record, I was taken back to middle school and those days of Wilco obsession. Perhaps that's because Wilco has taken heavy influence from Big Star, sharing that distinct alternative-country vibe, or maybe because the record reflects a small-town, adolescent mindset. The attitude of the album oscillates between "Who gives a s—-?" and "I really give a s—-." One minute, singer Alex Chilton is pouring out his soul and apologizing to God in an all-is-lost sort of way, and in the next he's singing, "Wish we had a joint so bad." Whether intentional or not, I found this to be an accurate representation of the teenage moral and emotional state.
On my first listen through #1 Record, I was tempted at one point to check my iTunes to make sure that I hadn't accidentally clicked on a different artist. I found that, while it was easy to immediately label each song as influenced by various '60s bands, or to just say that every other song sounds like The Beatles, the eclecticism itself is original; the abrupt transitions in mood from song to song are exciting and hard to get used to; and the fact that Big Star is able to successfully spread its wings in this way is an indication of true musicianship and songwriting genius.
It took a couple of spins, however, to recognize that #1 Record is a subtly dark album. In "In the Street," Chilton tells of his small-town boredom. I love this song because it's so fun to listen to, but I'm also often reminded of my own painfully lame Friday nights. The following track, "Thirteen," continues the theme of semi-innocence, but also introduces a darker element. The song begins by addressing first-love clichés, but it ends with the singer accepting that his crush may not love him back: "Would you be an outlaw for my love? / If it's so, well, let me know / If it's 'no,' well, I can go / I won't make you." Even when the progression of songs felt a little bumpy, the consistent thematic drive helped provide fluidity.
Big Star's "Thirteen" from "#1 Record" (1972).
Though #1 Record is great, I'm not a fan of the pacing. The first half of the album is a nice mix of upbeat hits and gentle ballads, but by the second half, the guitar gets unplugged and the foot-tapping beat of "Feel" and "When My Baby's Beside Me" is relinquished. After my emotions were thrown about from the lovestruck, rebellious and whimsical first 20 minutes, the acoustic guitar and solo vocals on the second half felt like a repetitive, mellow drag.
I don't know very much about Big Star. I now know that I like the band and that I like #1 Record, despite some of its softer elements. This album is timeless: It cuts deep to a time and place that everyone can relate to. Listening to this album was a personal experience, a reminder of what has influenced me for the better. I don't know if I'd send Big Star a whole fruit basket, but it'd get a tangerine or two.