One marker of a great musical act is that nobody can agree on their best album. At first glance, that designation might not seem to apply to Sunny Day Real Estate.
The Seattle quartet’s 1994 debut album Diary towers over their discography in terms of influence and recognition. It’s universally regarded as one of the sacred texts of ’90s emo, one of those releases that spawned countless imitators and helped to shape the sound and trajectory of a genre. Diary is such a big deal compared to the rest of the SDRE catalog that to the casual listener they probably seem more like one of those bands who spent the rest of their career struggling and failing to measure up to their seminal debut. But I can objectively prove that there is no true consensus regarding the group’s creative peak.
For one thing, whoever wrote the Apple Music description for 1995’s distended and impressionistic LP2, aka “The Pink Album,” believes it “stands as the band’s classic release” — a designation I’d vehemently dispute, though I appreciate the heavy lifting it’s doing for my argument here. Surely the unnamed author must know enough people who agree with this take in order to feel comfortable making it in such an official context. But if we’re talking unsung Sunny Day Real Estate classics, my vote goes to 1998’s post-breakup reboot How It Feels To Be Something On, an album every bit as exhilarating and accomplished as Diary if not more so. That album turns 20 years old this weekend, and I will now proceed to explain why it’s the best thing this band ever did.
But first, for the sake of comprehensiveness: Despite its title, as far as I know no one thinks 2000 swan song The Rising Tide, on which Sunny Day nudged its sound into metallic-sheen modern rock territory, is the band’s high water mark. I mistakenly believed my friend and former bandmate Doug, who initially turned me on to How It Feels To Be Something On in high school, was a Rising Tide advocate, but he shot that down in a series of text messages last weekend: “No way! How It Feels has always been my favorite, which is I think an unpopular opinion among most SDRE fans who are Diary loyalists. I liked The Rising Tide but never as much as How It Feels. I mean — the big ending of ‘The Prophet’? Holy cow. So fucking good. Some of the best sounding guitars ever.”
Doug was a grade behind me. He had moved to suburban Columbus from Bloomington, Illinois, just down I-55 from Chicago and just up I-74 from Champaign, which put him within range of the area’s now legendary emo scene. As such, in addition to more Warped-Tour-friendly acts like Alkaline Trio and Hot Water Music, his love for emo extended to local heroes such as Cap’n Jazz and Braid and American Football. As a nascent indie snob who was beginning to see emo as a dirty word, I wouldn’t delve into much of that music until long after my teenage years — ironic, I realize — but at least one album Doug loved cast its spell on me immediately.
Partially that’s because How It Feels doesn’t sound like emo by any conventional definition. Honestly, it’s hard to categorize at all. Jeremy Enigk’s unmistakable angelic yowling, his and Dan Hoerner’s alternately gorgeous and ferocious guitar interplay, the band’s unconventional winding song structures, the surprise orchestral flourishes, the Eastern melodies that tweak such firmly Western rock music just enough to lend it an alien quality — it all adds up to an album that somehow sounds more radio-ready by 1998 alt-rock standards while also eluding definition.
That said, I don’t want to play up its uniqueness too much because on the list of the album’s glorious attributes, that one ranks far behind painstaking beauty, visceral force, and a livewire energy the band seems capable of flipping on and off at will. And anyhow, Sunny Day’s music has always conversed with the ruling alt-rock records of the moment, which is one helpful way to understand the way their sound transformed over the four years leading up to this record. Just as Diary sometimes bore the imprint of In Utero and Siamese Dream, there are flashes of OK Computer and Perfect From Now On throughout How It Feels To Be Something On. In the broadest terms, the album subs out punk influences for prog while retaining the epic scope that launched Sunny Day Real Estate straight into the pantheon.
SDRE have historically struggled to stay in sync, both personally and creatively. Their brief periods of activity always cut short by interpersonal tension, business-related discouragement, and reasons not fully explained. But on How It Feels, everything snapped into place. For an album that began as a scraped-together collection of burgeoning Enigk solo songs and an unused contribution to The Crow: City Of Angels soundtrack, How It Feels has a remarkably consistent point of view.
Enigk was coming off Return Of The Frog Queen, the solo album he’d released after converting to Christianity. Hoerner had been living on a farm. Bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith had followed SDRE’s original run by becoming part of the original Foo Fighters lineup — a gig Mendel ultimately found too lucrative to return to SDRE. (They replaced him with first Jeff Palmer and then Joe Skyward.) Whatever antagonism arose after Diary had evaporated, replaced by a new creative energy.
OK, not totally new. In hindsight LP2 feels like a rough draft for the high drama Sunny Day pulled off here. But whereas those “Pink Album” songs felt like a band in transition, and in some cases were literally unfinished, How It Feels To Be Something On presents a unified front at the peak of its powers. Guitars linger in midair, performing violent acrobatics. The rhythm section shifts at wild angles and sometimes morphs before your ears. Spooky chants and moans commingle with hypnotic arpeggios. Frantically constructed Jenga towers of sound shriek with tension, only to crash down into cascades of fervent strumming.
It feels like wizardry, like the elements being whipped up into magnificent torrents of sound. That may just be the loosely defined spiritual tone struck by many of the songs. Opener “Pillars” is about faith in crisis, though it’s unclear whether the substance is relgious or romantic. Subsequent 9/4 twister “Roses In Water,” with its talk of wise men and centuries and endless waves, is the sound of the heavens opening up and glory spilling out. Set to a mournful slow dance that gives way to an electrifying onslaught, the title track cracks Enigk open to plumb the depths of the infinite and winds up with the kind of ecstatic mountaintop experience people often seek in their pursuit of the divine. No song contributes to this quasi-religious tenor more than “The Prophet,” which builds from monk-like tranquility to a rapturous freakout.
Even when the subject matter isn’t so metaphysically charged, it’s weighty. The alternately churning and cavernous “100 Million” vents Hoerner’s environmental concerns over a sonic landscape that shifts even more dramatically than Earth’s. Tragic waltz “The Shark’s Own Private Fuck” condemns the pursuit of wealth and pleasure and is easy to read as a dig at Mendel for choosing Foo Fighters over Sunny Day. Conversely, on the acoustic power ballad “Every Shining Time You Arrive,” the return of a majestic figure inspires Enigk to revamp his life. Gently drifting outro “The Days Were Golden” is as nostalgic for childhood as you’d guess based on the title, while “Guitar And Video Games” renders the most mundane adolescent pastimes as a profound romantic rebellion against social norms.
Speaking of romance: Lest we forget Sunny Day Real Estate’s roots, “Two Promises” finds emo-kid patron saint Enigk pouring his heart out via character sketch. One second he’s a levelheaded storyteller spinning details like “He thinks, ‘I give her my heart, she tasted my blood, now she’s gone again.'” The next, he’s wailing at the top of his lungs: “Why did you leave me here?! How could you lead me down here?!” Even that song is marked by eerie chord changes and compositional twists — Sunny Day Real Estate’s past and present colliding in real time. At the end, Enigk intones, “Walls he’s building keep on crumbling down/ Walls have fallen now there is no sound.” As if on cue, the music collapses around him, his screams of “There is no sound!” barraged by so much sound.
How It Feels To Be Something On is full of climactic moments like this. It’s so awesome so consistently that I am always astonished to meet Diary fans who dismiss it. I recently learned a friend of mine who maintains a deep sentimental connection to Diary didn’t even don’t know How It Feels existed. I’ve listened to a ton of Sunny Day Real Estate in the past few weeks trying to figure out if I’m crazy to revere this album with such intensity, but as the old cliché goes, upon further review the only thing I’m crazy for is How It Feels To Be Something On. It’s not only my favorite Sunny Day Real Estate album, I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite album of 1998, above Miseducation, Aeroplane, Aquemini and the rest. I’m not totally sure what it means “to be something on,” but every time I return to this album, I am absolutely certain how it feels.