Sunny Day Real Estate is often held up as the greatest emo band of all time, or at least the most definitive. I won’t argue with anyone making that claim, but I’m thinking they’re simply the most exceptional. Think about how second-wave emo history is usually retold in clannish, territorial terms: the Kinsellas; Lawrence, Kansas; Urbana-Champaign; upstart labels like Polyvinyl, Deep Elm and Jade Tree; bands piling into vans to criss-cross the country, guided by Book Your Own Fucking Life; flyers for incomprehensibly stacked shows that drew a couple dozen people. Meanwhile, Sunny Day Real Estate were from Seattle and signed to Sub Pop, a legendary indie-rock label that never signed another emo band before or since. SDRE’s contemporary peers were conceivably the Afghan Whigs, Sebadoh, or Velocity Girl, or even Nirvana and Soundgarden. They famously, and randomly, refused to tour through California.
Or, just think of what Sunny Day Real Estate actually sound like and it’s a wonder they were ever considered emo at all. Even the most legendary bands from their era were humble operations canonized only through word-of-mouth and slowly gestating influence. From the very start, Sunny Day Real Estate created an aura of grandeur through their billowy, expansive declarations of all-consumptive yearning and rejection of the press. Compared to the Promise Ring or Braid or Cap’n Jazz, they might as well have been an arena rock band. So The Rising Tide — an actual arena-rock album, released 20 years ago this Saturday — makes sense as their logical endpoint.
Indie fans in 2020 probably can’t fathom how switching from Sub Pop to something called “Time Bomb Recording” might have given Sunny Day Real Estate a bigger platform. But dig a little deeper — Time Bomb was a joint venture between Arista and industry bigwig Jim Guerinot. Though he managed Nine Inch Nails until 2013, Guerinot’s rep is better illustrated by the rest of his roster: No Doubt, the Offspring, and Social Distortion. For a band that made a big deal out of refusing to do business in California, this partnership feels like a galaxy brain joke — Guerinot wasn’t just based in California, he fully embodies Orange County, the most sanitized and suburban part of the state. Time Bomb was based out of Laguna Beach and Guerinot even gave a commencement speech at UC-Irvine.
Befitting their arrival on a major label, Sunny Day Real Estate swapped out Greg Williamson, the only producer who did them justice (sorry y’all, but I agree with Ryan Reed’s take that Brad Wood’s work on Diary is somehow both distractingly thin and muddy), in favor of Lou Giordano. This appeared to be a sensible move, for Giordano had a lot of experience preparing indie-rock icons for radio airplay. He was behind the boards for the debuts of Sugar and Belly, acts that thrust Bob Mould and Tanya Donnelly into suburban living rooms before they became fixtures at every used CD store I’ve ever been to. Perhaps more relevantly, Giordano produced A Boy Named Goo, which wasn’t all that spiritually different than Copper Blue or Star — prior to “Name,” the Goo Goo Dolls were Soul Asylum without the hits, a bunch of Replacements wannabes who stepped up from Metal Blade (!) to Warner Bros. without much luck.
When a band makes such an obvious bid to level up, it’s worth imagining who they imagine meeting at that level — are they gunning for a completely new fanbase or attempting to broaden their existing core by doing everything they did before with greater visibility? In Sunny Day Real Estate’s case I’m inclined to say the latter, only because the target demographic for The Rising Tide appeared to be people like me.
Contrary to what you might assume from basically everything I’ve written at this website (and most others), I had no idea what emo was in 2000. I’ll certainly admit to living a sheltered existence at the time, while also reminding y’all just how little regard the mainstream press had for emo even during its supposed Golden Age. Look, I watched MTV something like four hours and a day and was just as reliant on alt-rock radio. I read every issue of Rolling Stone cover-to-cover, probably multiple times, and kept up with Spin, NME, and whatever else could be found in the periodical rack at Borders. I was aware of Pitchfork and bought Dismemberment Plan and Walt Mink CDs on their endorsement, but hadn’t delved enough into their archives to see what “indie rock” really thought of emo.
June 20, 2000 was like most other Tuesdays in those years as I took my weekly trip to Plan 9 in Charlottesville to spend what little disposable income I had — on this particular release day, I had my sights set firmly on White Pony. It didn’t take long for me to be distracted by what I was hearing on the store’s PA. It wasn’t altogether different from what I was hearing on WNRN at the time, but there was an intriguing, alien quality to Jeremy Enigk’s vocals. It sounded more lush, less complacent than 3 Doors Down or Californication. I asked the clerk what I was hearing and he pointed to a compact disc of The Rising Tide placed on the counter. The name “Sunny Day Real Estate” was vaguely familiar – perhaps I saw the Diary cover art coming to life for the “Seven” video on 120 Minutes, or maybe I just had them confused with Green Apple Quick Step.
To this day, I’m still struck by how immediately Sunny Day Real Estate situated themselves into the context of arena rock past and present, and The Rising Tide is almost ruthlessly designed to win over a kid raised on grunge and Led Zeppelin within the first five minutes. To this day, when I go to Guitar Center and pick something off the wall I can’t possibly afford, I’m playing the earth-moving, E minor scale riff that begins “Killed By An Angel,” as if it were “Black Dog” or “Purple Haze.” There are two songs which share titles with Zeppelin album cuts (“Rain Song,” “The Ocean”). They dabbled in Middle Eastern scales and tonalities, much like Pearl Jam at the time. Most of the reviews for The Rising Tide are on defunct websites, but even the pull quotes available on Metacritic get the point across — witness multiple comparisons not just to U2 but specifically, Moving Pictures, the album where Rush became fixtures on FM radio. “One” immediately brings U2 and Creed to mind, though I would’ve likened its fitful guitars and electro-acoustic dynamics to something from The Colour And The Shape.
(I didn’t recognize the irony of that thought at the time, having no idea that half of Sunny Day Real Estate had joined Foo Fighters in 1994. However, William Goldsmith quit before The Colour And The Shape because Dave Grohl secretly recorded over his drum tracks, one of many Grohl-related betrayals about which Goldsmith is still very Mad Online. Nate Mendel has remained in Foo Fighters to this day, presumably because Grohl never thought as highly of his own bass playing.)
Despite its lofty aims, The Rising Tide now most reminds me of Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 — a flawed, overzealously produced album that seemed immeasurably cool at a time when I bought maybe 35-50 CDs a year because I was far more likely to read about them in magazines than ever see them on MTV. Like Figure 8, it lost most of its power once I started working backwards through their catalog and began to understand the grumblings from people a few years older than me.
I’d probably say I was first exposed to proper emo in 2001, and in the most stereotypical way possible — I had been lent The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most by a girl I really liked, to the point where I actually went along with her and her boyfriend to see a Dashboard Confessional show. (They ended up getting married and are still together!) Even better, she played Fevers And Mirrors during that two-hour car ride. Bleed American came a few months later, and all of a sudden, I was starting to gain a sense of a genre that validated my entire physical and emotional state as a 21-year old in his last year of college — spring-loaded, cerebral but tongue-tied, dangerously melodic songs that were largely about being paralytically sad about girls (I’d argue that the “guys-mad-at-girls thing” didn’t come until several years later).
In discovering the likes of the Promise Ring, Braid, and Jimmy Eat World, I naturally ended up at Diary, tacitly understood as emo’s gold standard. But digging into Sunny Day Real Estate’s older albums didn’t initially deepen my appreciation for what they had been building towards.
It started to feel like a zero sum game: compared to the cryptic spirituality that Enigk had expressed on Diary or even the explicitly born again exaltations of How It Feels To Be Something On, “Killed By An Angel” now felt blunt and didactic in its straight-edge evangelism. The message of “One” really isn’t that different from the Creed song of the same name, and minutes later during “Disappear,” Enigk has created his own prison. Maybe Sunny Day Real Estate were intended as precursors to bland, quasi-Christian hitmakers like Shinedown and Switchfoot? In light of the patient, resplendent beauty conjured by “Every Shining Time You Arrive” or “Days Were Golden,” those strings on “Rain Song” and “The Ocean” seemed garish. Whereas Enigk’s invented language on LP2 (or even the word “mondrary” on “Guitar And Video Games”) was evocative and wondrous, everything on The Rising Tide said exactly what it meant: “She’s in my head, like television”; “Disappear into the sun”; “Tearing in my heart when the world falls apart.”
I started to understand why the reviews at the time were either middling or conditionally positive — All That You Can’t Leave Behind was still four months away, so it’s hard to tell whether calling Sunny Day Real Estate “emo-core’s answer to earnest, pre-Achtung Baby U2” was a compliment even in Rolling Stone. The promotional might of Time Bomb helped The Rising Tide spend one week on Billboard’s Top 200, peaking at #97. After completing a stateside tour, Sunny Day Real Estate were set for their maiden European voyage in 2001; their supposedly cash-flush benefactor couldn’t afford tour support and the only major Time Bomb release from that point forward was the debut LP from Quarashi, an Icelandic rap-rock band that I used to get confused with Lostprophets. Interpersonal conflicts caused Sunny Day Real Estate to break up after all three of their previous albums, and The Rising Tide was no different.
I can’t think of a faction who might consider The Rising Tide to be Sunny Day Real Estate’s best album beyond “people who haven’t heard another Sunny Day Real Estate album.” Diary is firmly entrenched in the canon, How It Feels To Be Something On is the choice for indie-leaning dissenters, and LP2 is the pick for the straight-up contrarian. Though it’s the album that literally ended Sunny Day Real Estate as we know it, The Rising Tide has more of a reputation as a commercial flop rather than an artistically daring “career killer” like In Reverie, Your Majesty, or Wood/Water, hard left turns that became cult classics and predicted the merger of indie rock and emo a decade later.
When that sweeping reappraisal of emo did come to pass, Sunny Day Real Estate were seemingly the only band from their time that didn’t get a signal boost. Though their vision of “emo arena rock” did eventually come to pass (some of it produced by Lou Giordano), a wave of younger bands were reshaping the genre in the scrappier image of American Football, Mineral, and Braid — bands that were either seen as less substantial or even ripoffs of Sunny Day Real Estate in their day and emerged in the mid-2010s with wildly successful reunion tours, comeback albums that were actually great, and reissues subject to critical adoration that far exceeded anything they got in the ’90s.
Sunny Day Real Estate didn’t even have that last thing going for them. How It Feels to Be Something On was voted #1 in Pitchfork’s original year-end list, now scrubbed completely from the internet, but dropped to #32 in the 2018 revote and is the only review I’ve ever done where reissue got a lower score than before. I saw Sunny Day Real Estate play to a sparse late afternoon crowd at Coachella in 2010, and while they weren’t done any favors with a set time that overlapped with Yo La Tengo, Matt & Kim, and Florence & the Machine (!?!), they were singled out by none other than Courtney Love as a sign of reunion fever spreading out of control: “And I’m like, ‘How did Sunny Day Real Estate do a reunion tour?’ It’s like anybody that ever had a Sub Pop Single of the Month did a reunion tour.”
To be fair, around that same time, I saw Promise Ring and Cap’n Jazz play reunion gigs to tiny crowds they would eventually dwarf only several years later once the “emo revival” had transformed them into primary influences on contemporary indie rock. But when Sunny Day Real Estate released an actual new single in 2014, “Lipton Witch” left about the same impact as those Stone Roses reunion joints that came out a few years ago. I’ve heard rumors that SDRE had an album in the can that was eventually scuttled because they still can’t get along. “Enigk blames…communication issues and his refusal to front a ‘mail-in band’ composed of members with other personal and professional priorities,” according to an Uproxx interview from 2017 that otherwise spent its time dumbfounded at how emo’s most revered vocalist was playing house shows in support of a wonderful solo album that was being roundly ignored even by Sunny Day Real Estate fans. The headline read, “Attention Record Labels: Emo Legend Jeremy Enigk Is Back And Looking For Somebody To Sign Him.” But if “Lipton Witch” is any indication, SDRE did us a favor by keeping their “lost” album on the shelf.
If Sunny Day Real Estate is somewhat diminished in the current day, I want to chalk this all up to poor timing rather than poor quality. Twenty years later, I’ve come to terms with how most of what I thought about it at 25 was just parroted talking points about credibility and arena rock papering over for the lack of self-consciousness that allowed me to unreservedly love its overwhelming bigness. Whenever there’s a Twitter prompt asking people to post their favorite albums from high school or what have you, I’m often struck by how I’m less embarrassed by what I loved 20 years ago than what I loved two years ago. Turning my music fandom into a professional pursuit has broadened my horizons and taught me new and profound ways to appreciate music, but there are many, many times where I’d trade it all for the ability to put what it all means aside.
I’m not bothered by the “hip youth pastor” vibe of “Killed By An Angel,” I’m impressed that it does its “hip youth pastor” thing while being so convincingly mean. “Disappear into the sun” isn’t an original thought, nor is “I must break free from the prison I have made,” but that’s exactly what an arena rock chorus is supposed to inspire. The way “Disappear” and “Snibe” lunge from their verses, all coiled tension and snakecharmer melodies, is not an accident. Maybe it’s not that they’re overblown compared to Diary, but rather that the choruses on Diary were kinda timid. The Rising Tide is also a more experimental album than it’s given credit for; not for the vocoder breakdown on “Snibe,” but for “Television” suggesting an intriguing off-ramp into angular New Wave, or “Faces In Disguise” and the title track aligning Sunny Day Real Estate with the proggy, magisterial sweep of bands like Doves and Elbow that were sustaining Britrock between OK Computer and Is This It.
Nowadays, I don’t hold The Rising Tide accountable for what it isn’t, but admire it for what it actually is: an admirable attempt to be the exact thing it was so snidely accused of being in 2000, i.e. emo’s answer to U2, a Big Record of Big Riffs and Big Strings with Big Messages about Big Things. If they never fully fulfilled that destiny, they still ended up being the only Sunny Day Real Estate.