All About Chemistry, by Semisonic
One of my quirks as a music listener is my consistent fondness for music that is released as a follow-up to popular success where there is a lot of attention paid to beautiful details thanks to the higher budget that follows success but which doesn’t resonate as much with the general public. And “All About Chemistry” falls into that group, a reflective and meditative album relating to songs about love that straddles the line between Adult Alternative, power pop, and Hot Adult Contemporary in a way that is appealing to a listener like myself and has been since the album was released but which didn’t even manage to crack the top 100 of the Billboard album charts. It is a shame that this album’s lack of commercial success meant that it was the last new music we got from the band for nearly two decades, but the failure of this album was serious. Semisonic was dropped by their label, Dan Wilson started writing solo material and became a popular songwriter for artists like Adele and the Dixie Chicks, and that was that. This album is a really good one and deserved a far better fate. Although power pop is typically music that fans modestly like and critics hate, critics liked this album more than mainstream audiences and that is definitely the case for me as well.
Here is a track-by-track review:
Chemistry: A sunny power pop song, the upbeat nature of this song hides the rather reflective tone of experimentation in love and the damage done by failed relationships. The adventurous and daring music video gives a better appreciation of what this song is about, and it sets the tone for the yearning and dissatisfaction of the album as a whole.
Bed: This is one of those songs that sounds pathetic and is meant to. Dan Wilson’s begging for sex from a friend and his whining that without sex he’s going to go insane is precisely what this song was aiming at. I’m not sure it’s a good target to be aiming at, but it accomplishes what it set out to do.
Act Naturally: This is an interesting and moody song, released to Hot AC and not successful there sadly, that points to the way that people try to hide their troubles and act as if everything is alright. Although the song is addressed to the narrator’s partner, there is a knowing sense of irony that perhaps it is his inability to hide things that is the real issue.
She’s Got My Number: This song is full of weird beeps and fuzz and is one of the standout tracks for me. Like quite a few songs on this album this is about a man trying to deal with an unreliable woman that he is infatuated with and who he has not always treated as honorably as he should, demonstrative of the way that our relationships shape us in many ways.
Follow: This is one of the more optimistic songs here, and one can definitely believe Dan Wilson that he would like to believe in an everlasting love even if he is somewhat cynical about its reality. That sentiment is what marks this album as romanticist rather than romantic, and this song is a pleasant and beautiful ode to the optimism of love and relationships even with less than ideal history.
Sunshine & Chocolate: This is sort of a “nice guy fantasy” sort of song, where the narrator sings about a fling he had where the sex was good, everyone wished each other well, and where the fling was short and/or intermittent but where there wasn’t a great deal of regret on any side. It seems like a fantasy, though, and not like the real thing, like how musicians wished their relationships with groupies would work.
Who’s Stopping You?: This is the only track on the album sung by John Munson, and it’s a fierce examination of the tendency we have of being our own worst enemies but blaming our struggles on other people, as if we would do any better on our own. The cynicism here matches the rest of the album and its exploration of self-destructive tendencies in relationships and gives a lot of food for thought.
I Wish: This song is pure yearning post-Beatles power pop with lyrics that are filled with dissatisfaction and even despair, and where there is a lengthy and gorgeous instrumental passage with a driving guitar that ends the song. If this song is too long to be a single it is also one of the obvious standout tracks on the album, blending the softer approach of Semisonic on this project with obvious rock ambition.
One True Love: This song is a duet between Semisonic and Carole King and co-written by Wilson and King, and it is another song that is filled with yearning. I can’t help but thinking that this song should have been a smash hit on AC, with its touching harmonies and wistful tone. This is a real missed opportunity here.
Get A Grip: An ode to masturbation that was a moderate hit in the UK, this song is a bit transparent about the way that those who lack someone else to love engage in fantasy and self-love. The song is a bit on-the-nose, and certainly the weakest track in the album, but it at least fits the broad range of the subject material of the album, and was apparently put on the album because of label pressure.
Surprise: One of the standout tracks on this album for me, this song features some stellar guitar work and moody lyrics that seem to hint at the possibility of a murder-suicide in the future. This is a dark song, and the combination between its dark lyrics and gorgeous music is probably what draws me to it so much, even though it would not likely be as much of a surprise as the narrator thinks it is.
El Matador: The only track here written by Semisonic drummer and noted author Jacob Slichter, this song is a reflective and nostalgic look at the narrator’s love of surfing and the feeling that youth is passing. That sense of running out of time is a good way to close out the album, because the whole album has the feel of looking back on the fun of youth and bravely facing the uncertainty of middle age that the song brings to light in such a poignant way.
In retrospect, it is disappointing but not surprising that the more meditative and romanticist longings of Semisonic expressed in this work failed to resonate with mass audiences even if it was very appealing to the band’s core audience. If “El Matador” can be seen as reflective of the band’s thoughts at the time, the appeal to “please don’t go away, stay awhile, stay awhile,” could have been a frustrated and ultimately unsuccessful appeal to fans not to abandon them because of their choice to make a more reflective and meditative album about love and relationships and isolation and rejection. And those fans who did stay with them and have stayed with them through the band’s long hiatus got music that is well worth remembering and appreciating even if it never appealed to mass audiences.