Is This Still Good?: Sublime — 40oz. to Freedom

*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?

The Sunday night before my first day of 7th grade in 1996, I was watching MTV’s 120 Minutes when the video for Sublime’s “What I Got” was premiered. Host Matt Pinfield explained that the singer had died of a drug overdose earlier that year, which added a tinge of sadness to the toe-tapping, affable folk-rock-punk song that followed. I thought it was okay but didn’t pay it much mind.

A year later, my 8th grade punk bandmate Jeff Krantz had gotten very into Sublime, and insisted that they were more than just those middling hit singles. He let me borrow 40oz. to Freedom, and as soon as I heard that unfamiliar sampled voice saying, “Punk rock changed our lives,” followed by a dog barking, followed by a sparsely textured, beautifully sung “Waiting For My Ruca,” I realized that Jeff was right — this was brilliant.

Is the music still good?

The sample that begins the record comes from “History Lesson, Pt. 2” by The Minutemen, a hugely influential, massively creative and weird 80’s indie-punk band. This is important to note along with the fact that on this record, Sublime covers Bad Religion, The Descendents, and…The Grateful Dead. Oh, and they have a song about hip-hop legend KRS-One. Therein lies the forever dichotomy of Sublime: they were Cali surf bros who did drugs and lived the hippie lifestyle, but also had serious reverence for punk rock and hip-hop. This inability to pick a lane is what gave them their sound, and it all hangs out on 40oz. to Freedom.

It somehow did not stick with me over the years that this record is 73 goddang minutes long. YIKES. Sublime had no ability to self-edit, so they just did everything they could possibly think of and tossed on every decent song they could come up with (though lord knows how many b-sides didn’t make it on).

Sublime played reggae and ska pretty well, played punk rock okay, and made credible attempts at incorporating hip-hop into their sound. This variety is crucial to making the record not feel too bloated and overly long, but what mostly makes it okay is the staggering amount of hooks. Just about every song has a reason to exist, with a chorus or hook that came rushing back to me when I re-listened. That must mean something.

Are the lyrics still good?

That depends. Do you think it’s cool for a white bro from Long Beach to pretend to be a Rasta? Do you like it when a white guy means to say “style” but he says “styleeee?” If yes, then yes! If no, then not really.

Bradley Nowell’s lyrics were mostly concerned with his drinking and his drug use, and how those unshakable aspects of his life affected everything and everyone else around him. At times these tales are good-natured and harmless, as we find him in “Smoke Two Joints” or “What Happened.” But then he begins “Let’s Go Get Stoned” with this line: “I swear sometimes you’re taking me for granted. I swear sometimes you’re a whore.” You get a clearer picture of what Nowell was like here — probably not an overall bad guy, but a guy who if he made bad choices, became a drunk misogynist. And sure, it was 1992 and men were less aware of how these choices hurt the women in their lives, but that line really didn’t sit well with me this time.

Did the band’s look age well?

If you were going to search up “What did guys from Long Beach look like in the mid-90’s,” this picture would probably do the trick. Sublime didn’t go for anything fancy with their look. They were just intoxicated surfer dudes who frequently wanted their press pics to include Nowell’s dog, Louie. Can’t go wrong there.

What are the worst songs?

I’ve never been super into reggae, so any of the more mid-tempo reggae songs that don’t do a lot, like “Badfish,” “Live at E’s” and “Right Back,” are immediate skips for me now.

What are the best songs?

Honestly, some of the best songs are the covers. “5446 That’s My Number/Ball and Chain” is basically a Toots and the Maytals song, and it pops and sizzles with genuine charm. “Scarlet Begonias” is a spirited reggae cover, just the way ol’ Jerry Garcia would have wanted it. And the punk covers of Bad Religion and Descendents really don’t stick out in a bad way. Sublime knew how to make all their influences make sense together.

My favorite song on this record was always “Date Rape,” as it’s by far the most dexterously played and elegantly sung song here, delivered in the form of speedy ska-punk. It’s a story song, one that details a man who commits the titular act on a woman, who then presses charges against him, which sends him to jail. It’s the only thing on the record that comes close to being a socio-political statement, yet the whole thing is ruined by the final verse, in which the punchline amounts to a prison rape joke about the main character being “buttraped by a large inmate.” Again, I know it was 1992. You still hear prison rape jokes even today. But I just wish the song cut off at the verse before and the guy just went to jail. Can’t that be enough??

Did the band practice Santeria?

No, I don’t believe they did, though I need to get back to you on their stance regarding a crystal ball.

Did anyone die young of a heroin overdose?

Yes, why do you ask?

Would this band be as revered as they are today had their lead singer not died tragically young?

I think that’s complicated. Would Sublime have been able to break out from the glut of indie bands that got swept up by major labels in the 90’s if they didn’t have a tragic backstory that accidentally made them a band of interest for the media and MTV? Probably not. So many bands put out great records back then and should have gone platinum, but didn’t.

However, had Sublime just been a middling punk-reggae band, people would have discovered them and then dropped them. But millions of people immediately locked in with what Sublime did and what they represented: a mishmash of styles and substances, and a complete freedom to do whatever you want and love whatever you love. The same blending of styles carried through to Sublime’s self-titled and most successful record, and the record-buying audience loved it. Sublime were fuckups who almost got there and won, but Nowell just couldn’t quite make it. It was like the mirror image of what happened to Kurt Cobain. Depression didn’t kill Bradley Nowell. His inability to do anything but feel good all the time killed him. People could relate.

So…is this record still good?

It is. I would trim at least five or six songs off it, and it gets unacceptably stupid in certain moments, but Sublime endures because they were good. Now, let me go inhale a big smoke of marijuana off of this glass bong and hop on my trusty surfboard. The waves are calling me, brah.

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