Sixteen Stone Turns 20
Over the past 12 months, this site has commemorated numerous albums from 1994, partly because that’s what you do now when a pop culture work turns 20, but mainly because 1994 was an astounding year for music. And as an odd capper to that remarkable stretch, here we have reached the 20th anniversary of Bush’s polarizing debut album, Sixteen Stone.
The mere act of revisiting Sixteen Stone basically has to begin from a defensive stance, since the accepted history is that Bush shamelessly glommed onto the Seattle sound from across the Atlantic with an inauthentic, opportunistic debut. Released on December 6, 1994, it was despised by those we now call “influencers” and “tastemakers,” scoffed at by early-adopter grunge fans, and roundly ignored in its home country. Despite all that, Sixteen Stone became a runaway success and a harbinger of post-grunge’s pop dominance, spawning arena sellouts and five hit singles over the course of a year and a half. But after going six times platinum, today it barely registers in discussions of Alt Nation, becoming the rare example of history not being written by the winners.
Each band during this alt rock hegemony had its own identity, which Chris touched on in his Purple Anniversary, but Bush never really had an overt “thing.” You could picture Nirvana working through their scuzzy period or Alice In Chains putting in time at some dingy metal club before landing on MTV. Even Live was witnessed working out their grunge-mystic kinks on Mental Jewelry. But the thought of a pre-“Comedown” Bush toiling away in a garage somewhere? For some reason that seemed preposterous.
So the “poseur” label easily filled the void, and the fact that the singles were so mighty, and mighty glossy, only supported that designation. This culminated in the “British Nirvana” insult, which I always felt was unfair. Sure, “Little Things” followed the template of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in the way a Lego replica of the Empire State Building follows the same template. Elsewhere on the record, the closest thing to a Nirvana approximation was maybe the opening riff of “Bomb,” which brought to mind “Lithium” if you squinted hard enough. There were hints of Soundgarden’s groove-grunge on “Comedown,” and “Body” employed a remedial “Rusty Cage” riff, but as a whole the album stood apart from grunge by aiming for something more streamlined and facile.
It was SEO grunge, all of the hallmarks and none of the complicating factors. That’s how you got the adrenalized pop chug of “Machinehead” or the sexy sneer of “Comedown,” and those were contrasted with songs that displayed a self-conscious lack of artfulness and balance, as if to say, “Because grunge!” Over the years, I had forgotten just how muscular and harsh this album is. Listen to opener “Everything Zen” again — it is a cyclone of nonsensical angst and slide guitar fury. Nigel Pulsford’s guitar textures across the record were blown-out and crunchy, with scrapes around every corner and bridges almost always leading to dissonant arena crescendos, while drummer Robin Goodrigde deployed a near-constant barrage of cymbal crashes. Even “Glycerine” ignored subtlety, to opposite effect, and the result was the sort of unapologetic goop Gavin Rossdale’s peers never had the guts to make.
And nearly all of his choruses were meant to be sung with a grimace: “It’s the little things that kill, tearing at my brains again”; “I wanna live, I wanna die you”; “Oh kill a man, oh kill a girl.” Rossdale was clunky as a lyricist (“I touch your mouth, my willy is food”) and limited as a vocalist, but his biggest offense was not having the personality to make that grimace convincing. Two Side-B tracks might offer a glimpse at the real man behind all those faux-poetic koans about sex and violence, though. First up is “Testosterone,” a takedown of the exact type of macho goon shit that would soon conquer rock radio. Then the limber and fairly insane “Monkey” fires off lines like “To have is not what it’s made to be,” “I’m a monkey on a drip,” and a triumphant “We don’t mind” chant, all atop needly, noodly guitars and twitchy time changes adding up to what certainly appears to be a sardonic statement about rock stardom. This is an inspired pair of deep cuts that makes me wish Rossdale and co. had further explored this snottier side and attacked the “British sellout” angle with some irony.
But they were too earnest for that, so the quest for credibility consumed them. Cue the Steve Albini partnership, cue more cries of Nirvana-copying, and cue Razorblade Suitcase’s No. 1 debut in November ’96. That second album was an overly dour mess of self-serious bloat (except for “Swallowed”), another massively successful, massively uncool offering. It was nearly impossible to rebound after such a “Greedy Fly” video-sized strategic blunder, and so their next stab at credibility — Deconstructed, their first release that could actually be called forward-thinking — was met with a shrug.
Today, Bush has been forgotten by millions. Sixteen Stone’s sparse Wikipedia page spends as much time on the album as it does on the photo of Rossdale’s mop-haired dog that appears on the CD. Its legacy is the “Machinehead” riff playing during stoppages at sporting events, “Comedown” soundtracking Miley Cyrus’ salvia freakout, and the occasional karaoke version of “Glycerine.” Many would argue that this fate is an example of the system righting itself. Bush, Silverchair, these bands may have mattered to kids like me who missed the grunge cut-off by a couple years, but justice and good sense prevailed in the end.
But I’d argue that this outcome benefits Sixteen Stone, freeing it of all the baggage from that era. Examined in today’s setting, where poptimism has whittled the notion of authenticity down to a nub, Sixteen Stone is ripe for reappraisal. Its combination of steroidal production, libidinous malaise, and unabashed hookiness — the very sources of so much derision in 1995 — sounds more at home in our TV partnership era than it does alongside the titans of grunge or the knuckle-draggers of butt-rock. It feels like music untethered from time, separate from its history. And I think that means Bush finally has a cool album on its hands.