Is This Still Good? is a series in which I revisit records that I loved as a youngish person, and examine how well they have held up over the years for me.
How did I get into this record?
I don’t have much of a story with this one. I probably saw the video for “Santa Monica” on MTV, I’m guessing sometime in early ’96, but didn’t fully get into the record until late ’96, which was 7th grade for me. If one of my friends encouraged me to check it out and I don’t remember, I sincerely apologize.
Since you have no interesting story, what else can you say about Sparkle and Fade?
I was surprised to learn that this record is actually Everclear’s third most successful record, behind Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 1 and So Much For the Afterglow, the latter of which has the Everclear songs you likely know: “I Will Buy You a New Life” and “Father of Mine.” Those records have their moments, but at the time I found them to be a little weak and disappointing. Sparkle and Fade was it for me, so I will not be talking about the more popular records, as I clearly have my finger on the pulse of nostalgic music writing.
Is the music still good?
You bet it is. Yes. GOD, it’s good.
Oh, you think I need to explain why a slightly popular alternative rock album from the mid-90’s is good?? Fine.
By this time in my musical evolution, I was heavily into Rancid and Operation Ivy. I hadn’t gone much into punk rock beyond those bands, but I was leaning in the direction of faster, noisier rock’n’roll (though I still liked Seven Mary Three for some insane reason, which I may delve into in a future piece). Everclear got big in the alternative rock era, but they rocked harder than most of those other bands. To be fair, songs like “Santa Monica” and “You Make Me Feel Like a Whore” do paint a somewhat accurate picture of the Everclear sound: crunchy guitars with normal-dude vocals and that bouncy rock rhythm designed to get teens hopping up and down.
But right as “Santa Monica” ends, it cuts into “Summerland” — a stunner of a song that doesn’t come as a total left turn but does incorporate a more sophisticated style of playing and writing, one that wouldn’t feel out of place on the emo records of the era. “Strawberry” comes next, a solo opportunity for Art Alexakis to layer a bunch of shimmering guitars over each other and make some pretty melody. And THEN, after the very good semi-hit single “Heartspark Dollarsign,” “The Twistinside” comes in and just mops the floor with every remaining alternative band on the radio. Good lord, the final two minutes of that song, when it shifts from a crunching major-key ode to addiction and then takes a mean turn and rocks unbelievably hard…you have no idea what this song still makes me do when I’m alone and free of embarrassment.
Are the lyrics still good?
Perhaps Everclear’s most defining characteristic that separated them from their peers was the fact that Art Alexakis was 33 when this record came out — not exactly a young pup. And not only was he a bit older, but Alexakis had lived a very full life up to this point, filled with tragedy, addiction and more tumult than most musicians could even pretend to have known. Though “Heroin Girl” is not totally autobiographical, Alexakis’s brother did die of an overdose when he was 12, and then Alexakis’s girlfriend took her own life when he was 15. The characters whose lives had come through his own were woven into the stories he would later put into his songs.
It’s true that there might be some eye-rolling when “Heroin Girl” starts with a line like, “I used to know a girl, she had two pierced nipples and a black tattoo.” I see Sparkle and Fade’s cheesiness as part of its charm, because the silliness is always in service of the narrative.
I also know that this had to have been the first record I ever heard which dealt frankly with issues of drug abuse and depression. I suppose Rancid and Nirvana went into that a little bit, but Alexakis is quite direct and open about the struggles endured by either himself or by his song’s characters. He must have done a good job not glorifying drugs and depression, because I luckily avoided almost all of that in my formative years. Maybe part of that luck was from being scared straight by Everclear.
Did the band’s look age well?
The picture is a little washed out, but they don’t look too embarrassing, do they? Yes, Greg Eklund has some ill-advised dyed-orange hair, and Craig Montoya is wearing the bowling shirt that was basically mailed to every straight guy’s house in the 90’s, but Art Alexakis is just wearing a plain black shirt and no silly hats or anything, so I think you gotta call this one a win.
What are the worst songs?
“You Make Me Feel Like a Whore” is too peppy and weightless, and the usage of the word “whore” just kinda sucks. “My Sexual Life” does basically nothing and is a real head-scratcher of a closing track. You gotta come correct with that final song, guys!
What are the best songs?
That stretch from “Santa Monica” to “The Twistinside” just cannot be beat. I also want to shout out the more abrasive songs like “Nehalem,” “Chemical Smile” and “Her Brand New Skin.” Songs like those show the punk roots from which Alexakis came, and also explains why I found a recent picture of him wearing a Dead Kennedys In God We Trust Inc. shirt that looks very out of place among his new more conventionally-dressed bandmates. The guy just can’t help but be punk.
So…is this still good?
I know I’ll be accused of being fully drunk on nostalgia with this one, but I think Sparkle and Fade holds up strongly and rules hard. Every time I revisit these songs, I’m pulled right back into the tales Alexakis tells, and I’m again in awe of how fucked up the world can be, despite how much I’ve learned about that since I was 13. This was where I found out that things could be really bad, not just because you ruined your life with drugs, but because of what happens as told in a line from “Summerland:” “I think I lost my smile. I think you lost yours too. We have lost the power to make each other laugh.” That’s still one of the more powerfully simple descriptions I’ve ever heard of dysfunction between two people. Sparkle and Fade is full of heartbreak such as this, only sometimes the melody is too breezy for you to notice. If you’re gonna be sad, you might as well smile about it too.