Feeling Strangely Fine, by Semisonic
In retrospect, it seems somewhat odd that this album is the only hit album in the United States that Semisonic ever had. Unsurprisingly, this was the first album I ever became familiar with of the band, thanks to my fondness for the big single that came off of this album, the airplay smash “Closing Time” with its faux-deep reflection on the similarity between drunks staggering home at the eponymous time when bars close and unborn children clinging to the womb before their painful entry into the world. The album as a whole stands up, and it is telling that other songs, most notably “Secret Smile” and “Singing In My Sleep” were particularly well-liked in other parts of the world as well as on rock and alternative radio. Semisonic comes off in this album as being a mix between nerdy alternative rockers and deeply romantic power pop musicians with just enough post-grunge muscle to drive these songs, and that was enough to give the band one hit and one hit album, and enough to make those of us for whom the blend of post-grunge, power pop, and nerdy alt-rock hit all the right buttons lifelong fans of the group. If their mass appeal was limited, their core appeal was great, and this album is as good a place as any to figure out why. Here is a track-by-track review:
Closing Time: This album begins on its most accessible note, a driving track with a prominent and simple piano melody that shows lead singer Dan Wilson musing on fatherhood given the troubled birth of his daughter and making a memorable contribution to famous lines that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Singing In My Sleep: By the time that this song was released, mixtapes and cassettes were certainly on their way out, but this song reflects the band’s nerdiness and their close bond with those who created mixtapes (like yours truly) even during the late 90’s, and the song was unsurprisingly a minor hit on alternative radio because it resonated with like minds.
Made To Last: A somewhat slow, aching piano ballad, this song is perhaps my favorite on the album and is another example of Wilson’s musing on fatherhood, and on his preoccupations of love and time. The background vocals are effective, and the guitar here has real yearning. This track seems to be an inspiration for the mood that would predominate on “All About Chemistry,” and marks a look at the direction the band’s music would increasingly turn.
Never You Mind: A rolicking song that details a humorous account of bickering couples, it is unclear if this particular song is autobiographical, but it does reference a particularly infamous episode of the original series of Star Trek and so the song demonstrates the interest of the group in romantic drama as well as nerd culture.
Secret Smile: A hit song in the UK and other countries (including Mexico), this particular song is slower and definitely on the romantic side, with the gentle melody and the warm sentiments of the song a testament to the power of love and appreciation in keeping relationships strong.
DND: This is another song that expresses the power and longings of romantic love, with the song consisting of the longings of the singer that the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel room would allow the lead singer and (presumably) his wife to be left alone for some romantic bliss. One wonders exactly who was bothering the narrator, but it is possible that the song reflects irritation with the burdens of fame even as those burdens had barely started for the group, a la “Dance Monkey.”
Completely Pleased: This song is perhaps one of the weaker tracks on the album, certainly so in my opinion, although it too falls into the band’s tendency to write songs about love and longing. In this song the narrator expresses his desire to please his woman, punning cum and completely pleased (similar to Lit’s “Miserable”), and while the sentiment of the song can certainly not be faulted and is quite praiseworthy, the execution of this song is a bit cringy.
This Will Be My Year: If the song is filled with more than a few zodiac references and other silliness in the lyrics, this Jacob Slichter-penned song also provided the band with a great many references to the level of success the album had and expresses careerist optimism for a group that was about to find its greatest level of success. In that light, it makes for a rather sly inside joke that makes for a strong album track for the loyal fans.
All Worked Out: This song inspired the title of the album, and it is a powerful and somewhat dark track about a woman who has her relationship with a man worked out, where she is driving the relationship to its culmination while the man involved feels strangely fine but not necessarily involved in the working out of her plans.
California: This particular song is an ode to California, and while it’s not my favorite song on the album, the fact that Wilson would later move to California from his native Minnesota suggests a strong fondness for the life that the area would have to offer. And it likely made the song more popular in California as well, so that couldn’t hurt.
She Spreads Her Wings: This track is the only number from John Munson, who sings lead on the album as well, and it fits in with the overall vibe here of dealing with love and relationships, and if Munson’s singing is a bit weak the song itself has some drive and is thought-provoking in its look at a woman.
Gone To The Movies: A fitting close to the album, this is a downbeat album closer about a woman who has left, and the song has enough ambiguity in it that it manages to suggest the tension of the loss of someone to the showbiz life, the discouragement of white knight tendencies on the part of the listening audience, and a demonstration of the whine of Wilson to good effect.
Overall, this is a solid album, and if I feel more critically about some of the songs in the album than I did when I first listened to it, this is a solid album overall that certainly showcases the band in a balance between the post-grunge sound that dominated the late 90’s and early 2000’s on rock radio and the band’s own power pop sensibilities that put them more in league with Ben Folds Five. The larger public seems to have been aware before too long of those power pop interests and unsurprisingly the band had limited long-term success except among devotees of romantic power pop, which includes this reviewer. Popular at the time it was released, this album stands the test of time as well.