Rock and roll has a long tradition of alcohol-basted love songs, but few are laced with the daredevil optimism of Semisonic's "Closing Time." Normally, contemplating a long-term relationship after your tenth Tecate seems a bad idea.
Dan Wilson, Semisonic's primary singer/songwriter and lead guitarist, explains that such jolly good cheer wasn't the original intent of the song -- which, at press time, had won out over the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" and Fastball's "The Way" for the top spot on Billboard's modern rock chart. But sentiments seem to sway toward the upbeat on their own volition.
"This is going to sound really crass," Wilson says, "but we'd been playing a bunch of shows before going in to make this record. I wanted to have a new [song] to play at the end of the night to send the crowds home -- and, very specifically, have it feel like the last thing they were going to hear in the show."
Having honed his deceptively intricate songwriting skills in the late-'80s/early-'90s cult outfit Trip Shakespeare, Wilson has found his stride with Semisonic. Indeed, there are plenty of potential hits on Feeling Strangely Fine, the band's latest release and the follow-up to their 1995 debut, Great Divide.
Then there's "Closing Time," of course, which Wilson says was written in one ten-minute sitting. Before he was able to over-think the tune, it was done: "I thought, 'Oh, "Closing Time," there's a good title.' Then I started singing the song and it mostly sort of popped out."
Actually, there's a bit more to the track than that. Though the lyrics reference the traditional customer kiss-offs from behind the bar ("You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here"), they also put a positive spin on a fairly depressing time of night. There's the sense that after the taps are turned off, another saga begins, one that's brimming with possibility. When Wilson sings in his wavering choirboy tenor, "I know who I want to take me home," it sounds less like a plea for random intimacy than a statement of fact: A new relationship is about to begin. As "Closing Time" progresses, it becomes more urgent -- it's last call in all its nagging uncertainty.
"If the song sounds upbeat, it's because people have hope that something great still might happen to them," Wilson says. "'Am I going to make a connection or not?'"
That connection makes itself known throughout Feeling Strangely Fine, particularly in the dark and grooving "DND" (as in "Do Not Disturb"), which chronicles a hotel-room tryst and the cocoon of illicit love. The tune's familiar depiction of a couple hiding from the rest of the world, seeking refuge in each other, somehow comes across more horny and hopeful than dysfunctional. And though the overall tone isn't exactly carnal, it is lustful -- albeit a more focused, adult lust.
Indeed, the Minneapolis trio -- which also includes bassist John Munson and drummer/keyboardist Jacob Slichter -- straddles the line between romance and desperation with aplomb. A grown-up release on the surface with young desire at its uncertain core, Strangely Fine is a sonically complex pickup line for sensitive rock guys. Stylistically speaking, the disc's alternately raunchy and pretty hooks share more with the late-period output of fellow Twin Cities rockers the Replacements than the lush, seductive strains of, say, Avalon-era Roxy Music. Even so, it's about time discerning alt-rockers of the '90s had some lovey-dovey sentiment to call their own. With ballads that are never too slow or unduly sappy, and smart, midtempo relationship fare, Feeling Strangely Fine yields a heady, romantic rush that only gets more intense with each listen.
To say the least, having the number one song on modern rock radio for the moment has enhanced Semisonic's once-moderate profile. The split-screen video of "Closing Time" is one of the few choice clips aired between episodes of My So-Called Life and The Real World. Locally, The Buzz (KTBZ/107.5 FM) is spinning "Closing Time" at an alarming rate. Ever the music fan, Wilson rarely thinks too hard about radio, let alone the mechanics of the tunes he hears on it. Asked if Semisonic's clever, literate fare seems out of place on the airwaves, Wilson acts as if he hasn't even noticed that his band could be considered an anomaly.
"Honestly speaking," says Wilson, "I listen to a lot of radio, and I never notice if something is literate or better put together or whatever. I usually take the words very much on a face value, or just get a feeling about it."
He'd never go so far as to call Feeling Strangely Fine a concept album. But he admits that it's to be taken as a whole, rather than just a collection of singles. "I tried to have an overall vision for the record, and I was probably writing all the lyrics around the same time," he says. "When we were recording, we had a few musical ideas that we were really, really into."
Despite the album's quirks -- Star Trek and Shakespeare references exist side by side -- Feeling Strangely Fine never loses sight of the greater pop picture. Strings and acoustic guitars sweeten the melancholic closer "Gone to the Movies." The more classic ingredients of piano, well-crafted melodies and aching harmonies point to power-pop sensibilities bolstered equally by a sense of history and possibility. Consider it the perfect make-out album for people who may see themselves as too old -- or too cool -- for the term.
Of course, these are things that may never have occurred to Wilson. "When I am writing a song, I don't feel like I am crafting it -- making sure that the perfect word is in there," he says. "I don't choose things to say because there is a wordplay. I am much more likely to choose something if it feels like it would be a really great thing to write in someone's senior yearbook as a goodbye to someone. Then I think I've hit on something really good. I don't value literary aspects unless that means it sounds like you mean it when you say it."
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Wilson also admits that when it comes to inspiration, love and sex are pretty much at the top of the heap. He is, however, a music fan first and foremost, with a knowledge of rock's history and its potential. So when the discussion turns to the process of songwriting, he's quick to offer that "politics is pretty good, but it never inspires me.
"Maybe it's the time we live in now, [but when] I listen to the Clash, I feel kind of jealous that they could feel that urgency about politics," he says. "When I think about politics, I just feel kind of sick to my stomach and mentally change the subject. Here we are, sort of post-Cold War, and every political system is revealed to be just a cynical money-exchange process. It all looks like a way to keep some people on top and some people on the bottom. I do occasionally feel kind of sad that politics doesn't inspire me more."
Then again, look who's laughing all the way to the bank.
Semisonic performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 14, at Six Flags Astroworld/Waterworld, 9001 Kirby. Special radio event sponsored by The Buzz (KTBZ/107.5 FM). Atheneum opens. For info, call 968-1000.