No. 4 Turns 20

No. 4 Turns 20

It had been a tumultuous and fragmented couple of years for Stone Temple Pilots. After a fairly prolific stretch — three albums in the three and a half years from late ’92 to early ’96 — the band began to fracture, primarily due to Scott Weiland’s addiction issues and subsequent legal problems. Following their third album, 1996’s Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, Weiland would release an underrated solo album called 12 Bar Blues; the rest of the STP, brothers Dean and Robert DeLeo plus drummer Eric Kretz, formed another band called Talk Show. But before the decade was out, they got together one more time for a fourth album, one that’d reclaim some — ahem — core essence of STP. Arriving 20 years ago this Saturday, it was called, simply enough, No. 4.

The late ’90s, in hindsight, marked a cusp — one of those times you can look back on and recognize a transitional era for rock music, one of many instances where people might proclaim its death only for a new rebirth to come around and continue the cycle. Many of STP’s peers or immediate forebears in American alternative were beginning to experiment with synthesizers and the electronica sounds of the day, resulting in albums like R.E.M.’s Up and Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore. The same was happening across the pond, whether in U2’s Pop or Radiohead’s OK Computer and the impending Kid A. STP were not one of the bands who went in this direction.

Instead, No. 4 was positioned as a “back to basics” album after the psych-pop of Tiny Music and the band’s ensuing troubles. Heavy and bombastic but also slick and professional, it was a big-budget alt-rock album in the waning days of such things. And while emo, nu-metal, and the likes of Foo Fighters and Nickelback ensured rock was a completely fine commercial prospect for years to come, No. 4 was almost a dinosaur upon arrival, a swaggering and snarling rock album at the postscript of grunge’s cultural cachet. When we look back at that time now, we think of rising American indie and ambitious genre-shifting works, not the alt-rock hangers-on during their theoretical downturns. Just about 15 months after No. 4 came out, the Strokes released their Modern Age EP. A new era was right around the corner.

Given the context, No. 4 should sound like a disaster two decades later. It’s almost cliche to talk about STP’s reputation at this point, the fact that they were derided as carpetbaggers upon the release of their debut Core, an older breed of careerist arena rockers dressed up in grunge to ride the wave of the zeitgeist. The way that story goes, the band showed their songwriting chops and stylistic malleability more and more on Purple and Tiny Music. An album promising back-to-basics, from a band that had never been accepted by the critical establishment or cultural luminaries of their time, arriving when the party was just about over — this is not a recipe for success.

And yet, No. 4 on some days sounds like STP’s best album. At the very least, it almost always feels like the album on which you can hear every version of this band — Weiland modulating his way through different classic rock icons from Iggy to Bowie to Morrison, the DeLeos bringing both crushing riffs and sickly-sweet psychedelia — coexisting and melding. No. 4, thankfully, did not sound like the second-tier grunge of Core. It sounded like a summation and evolution of the preceding three STP albums, a band that might’ve rediscovered their fire but were also not going to throw out everything they’d learned.

That being said, No. 4 did open with a mission statement that recalled their earliest rockers. Also serving as the album’s lead single, “Down” was recalibrated for the late ’90s, which means its chugging riff almost sounded in line with the nu-metal bands that were ascendant at the time. Somehow, STP still sold it — it did sound like a band that had locked back in. It sounded like a band roaring back to life even while their frontman beckoned, “Will you follow me down now/ Down now.”

There were plenty similarly ferocious songs populating No. 4. The guttural blurt of “MC5″ and “Heaven & Hot Rods” might’ve represented the weaker end of this equation, but elsewhere STP kept showing the subtleties they never got credit for. “Pruno” burst into a raging chorus, but it was all warped psych-rock edges, almost like a mirage of a post-grunge ripper. The cavernous wails of “No Way Out” and frenetic “Sex & Violence” had a silvery sheen to them, as if STP were recreating rock songs with a mechanistic precision but then leaving one or two knobs knocked a half degree off.

But elsewhere, the band showed how much else they had to offer — that other side of Stone Temple Pilots their defenders have so often leaned on. “Church On Tuesday” was a breezy late-’90s pop rock gem; “I Got You” was a similarly easygoing love song, pleasantly and classically catchy even when Weiland danced towards the more harrowing aspects of his life with lines like “When the mind begins to wander to the spoon.” “Sour Girl” was one more example of how adept STP were with hooks when they wanted to be, and was rewarded as such; though it isn’t one of their biggest songs in terms of alt-rock standards, it was actually their only single to crack the Billboard Hot 100.

As they’d aged, STP had also gained an ability to wrangle pure beauty into their music. That hadn’t gone away, as distorted as No. 4 was on the surface and as tortured as it might be beneath. “Glide” did exactly what it promised, an airy daydream of a track. Then the whole album closed with “Atlanta,” a conclusion you might find melodramatic if you hate STP, but one that registered as rich and cinematic for fans. A late-night shuffle through a decrepit smoke-filled saloon, there was something timeless and tragic about the song, Weiland sounding lost and solitary before being carried away on closing credits string arrangements. It was the perfect ending for No. 4, a sobering epilogue from people who had now been through a lot of life’s shit, yet a salve that gestured towards an era of healing and redemption.

Not for the first or last time, it went a different way for STP. Soon enough, Weiland would find himself back in prison. The band would never stay stable from here on out, returning for another album with 2001’s Shangri-La-DEE-DA before a series of semi-breakups and semi-reunions. Weiland would never really stay clean for too long either, his demons and self-destruction keeping him in a constant whirlwind of sobriety and relapse until, tragically, he lost his life at 48, just about four years ago.

Perhaps STP’s legacy will always be patchy, whether thanks to their inauspicious origins or the stop-start mess of their latter years. Perhaps unfairly, a fuller critical reappraisal — the chance of them being written about without acknowledgements of their checkered standing — doesn’t ever really seem possible. It’s even harder to settle such a thing when those who loved them then and would stand up for them later can’t agree, with some arguing Core got a bad rap from the start and the (maybe-)contrarians amongst us riding for albums like Tiny Music and No. 4 as lost, misunderstood masterpieces from a great band that never got their due as being great.

Though it’s hardly worth pointing out considering the pre-established rockiness of the band’s critical standing, No. 4 was decidedly not greeted as a masterpiece at the time. Even by STP standards — in which some of the earlier records were treated a touch more warmly — No. 4 received a fairly mixed reaction. It was clunky; it was tired. The band once accused of chasing trends now sounded like relics in the making, retreading downtuned paths while other artists ventured off to new places.

And maybe STP don’t have a masterpiece, at least not in the sense that there’s one album where every song was perfect and every aspect of the band’s identity was shining just right. But No. 4 at least remains an intriguing prospect in the conversation. Its rockers don’t suffer the same overexposure as earlier STP singles; its mellower moments are glistening and refined like never before. It’s a dark, contorted album that chooses to rupture itself, again and again, with tiny hints of shimmering beauty.

There was also something enticingly paradoxical about it. This is an album that was meant to be about new beginnings, but for various reasons — the people that made it, the end of a century — it would wind up playing as a heaving elegy. STP would never really be a consistently functioning band after this era, Weiland would never be consistently well, and pop culture would move on from the ideas and aesthetics this band prized. Maybe that’s why, relative to STP’s other albums, there’s still something transfixing about No. 4, their last document of a decade they helped define. It plays like one final, tragic blowout — allowing you, all these years later, to choose whether to follow it down into the darkness or to latch onto its fading glimmers of a new sunrise.

more from The Anniversary