Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
In 1998, Everclear appeared on FANatic, an MTV show where superfans met their favorite celebrities and conducted weirdly formal interviews with them. In this episode, Everclear—then including frontman Art Alexakis, bassist Craig Montoya, and drummer Greg Eklund—were sitting down with Eric Keown who claims, “I don’t just listen to [Everclear]. I jam to it.” Alexakis appears uncomfortable during the interview—not distant, necessarily, but guarded. When Keown says it was Everclear’s music that helped him stay off drugs, Alexakis’ response could be read as callous. “I write my songs for myself,” he says. “It’s not really like I’m trying to convey a message. I’m just trying to articulate what I’m feeling inside.”
Alexakis’ honesty is disarming. It also feels inappropriate, at least within the harmless, sanitized milieu of this MTV series. This is a show where the fan confesses his adoration for the idol, yet here the idol responds by acknowledging how little the fan matters. Keown, gently crestfallen, struggles with how to respond for a moment, then meekly replies, “If you didn’t write it for me, if you wrote it for yourself,” he stammers, “you’ve still got this universal theme behind all your music.”
Alexakis doesn’t make eye contact. “Wow, thanks, I don’t know what to say to that,” he says quietly. “Thank you very much.”
It’s not that Alexakis doesn’t mean it, it’s that he has no use for it. In 1998, he was 36 years old, divorced, a decade sober, and still coping with his broken childhood. So, yes, he was callous. But, as someone who had to be self-sustaining from a very young age, it’s no surprise that he’s distrustful of adoration. He was distrustful of most things. Since that episode aired, he got divorced twice more; four times if you count his split from Montoya and Eklund. After they left the band in 2003, Alexakis emphasized in interviews their status as hired hands who contributed nothing to Everclear’s body of work. There’s a reason some call him “the most hated musician in Portland.”
“I am Everclear,” he told Diffuser back in June, a claim that would be egotistical if it weren’t so true. Unlike their grunge forebears and Buzz Bin contemporaries, Everclear felt like the work of a singular mind, less band than singer-songwriter, with lyrics that eschewed abstraction for a specificity. How that confessional aesthetic evolved over the years remains Everclear’s most frustrating aspect, but on Sparkle And Fade, the band’s 1995 major label debut, it was distinct enough to give MTV a sense of identity in a post-Nirvana world.
If it weren’t already clear, a recurring theme in Everclear’s music, and in Alexakis’ personal life, is that of connection, the dizzying highs and lows of one’s relationship to romance, addiction, and family. While not a traditional concept album, Sparkle And Fade explores such themes through a loose narrative that ostensibly mirrors Alexakis’ own troubled 20s. He’ll tell you much of it is fiction, but the fact that the titular character of “Heroin Girl” didn’t exist doesn’t devalue the verse where cops decry her death as “just another overdose,” a moment from Alexakis’ life that’s all too real. As a pre-teen, he and his mother heard officers say those very words just hours after his older brother died from a lethal dope injection.
And it’s here that we begin, with rebellion and tragedy. The unhinged scream of lo-fi scorcher “Electra Made Me Blind” gives way to the scummy grunge of the aforementioned “Heroin Girl,” both songs touching on the comfort addicts find not just in drugs, but in each other. Rather than condemn the lifestyle, Alexakis uses these songs to humanize the users at the center of his story, to couch their addiction in ennui and environment. It’s no surprise, then, that songs like “Santa Monica” and “Summerland” romanticize escape with idealized locations that could help shepherd them to sobriety. “Strawberry” brings us back to reality with a heartrending tale of relapse and the resulting car accident that sets our narrator straight again. “The Twistinside” and “Her Brand New Skin” document the difficulties of cleaning up and commitment, while “Nehalem” documents the aftermath: a miscarriage, an affair, small-town gossip, and a breakup. Album standout “Pale Green Stars” explores the effect of a crumbling relationship on a young child. “Chemical Smile” reminds us that addicts are addicts for life. Similarly, “My Sexual Life” finds that old habits die hard and that getting sober doesn’t necessarily mean settling down. And that’s how it ends, with our narrator older and wiser but bound by many of the same impulses.
Interspersed among them are radio-friendly singles like “You Make Me Feel Like a Whore” and “Heartspark Dollarsign.” The former responds to emotional and monetary exploitation with an eye-for-an-eye mentality, while the latter celebrates an interracial relationship with an admirably straightforward candor. Despite their lyrical bluntness, both songs bristle with passion and perspective, not to mention hint at the sort of polished, radio-friendly sonics that would define Sparkle And Fade’s 1997 follow-up, So Much For The Afterglow. The curious, sloppy “Queen Of The Air,” on the other hand, offers one of the album’s few glimpses into his troubled family life, a topic that would receive plenty of attention on Afterglow.
In retrospect, it becomes hard to discuss Sparkle And Fade without considering Afterglow, the album that gave us “Father Of Mine” and resulted in many dubbing Everclear “the dude always singing about how his dad abandoned him.” Reductive? Of course. But such labels point to the lyrical shift that happened between the two albums, which went from confessional to autobiographical.
Sparkle And Fade tells a story. In it, Alexakis refrains from using broad strokes and instead offers intimate details, the kind that feel plucked from the part of your brain that glows only on sleepless nights. The cops in “Heroin Girl,” for example, whispering vulgarities that sting all the more because they might be saying the same about you in a few years. There’s the namesake burns of “Strawberry,” odd nicknames like “Perpetual Kathy,” the unnerving way the central couple of “Nehalem” all but gloss over the miscarriage that tore them apart. When Alexakis sings of a little girl watching Aladdin as her parents fight in “Pale Green Stars,” he’s created a juxtaposition that perfectly sums up the song’s central struggle. “Please don’t yell at me.” He cries, and the pain embedded in Alexakis’ delivery rises up from his belly, drenched in acid.
“Pale Green Stars” resonates all the more after hearing Everclear’s “Father Of Mine,” because the latter finds Alexakis promising his kids that they’ll never know the neglect of an absent father. We know that because he flat out tells us—in the video, he’s literally holding the hands of his two children while singing the lyric. “Father Of Mine” is astoundingly literal, with Alexakis breaking the fourth wall by lamenting on his impoverished childhood and outright condemning the man who abandoned him. It’s affecting in its own way, but it, like a lot of Everclear’s latter-day output, feels weirdly self-aware, like honesty as a means of branding. Comparatively, there’s a great deal more specificity and nuance to “Pale Green Stars,” which values the child’s perspective and complicates matters by casting Alexakis in the role of deadbeat dad. Much of So Much For The Afterglow feels like the work of a man who’s dealt with his demons and is ready to dispense wisdom; Sparkle And Fade follows someone in the midst of them, a flawed figure who wants to be better but can’t follow through. The latter almost always makes for more compelling art, if only because the stakes are infinitely higher.
So Much For The Afterglow is still an excellent record, and a few of the songs find the unique perspective that made its predecessor so powerful. “Amphetamine,” for example, again explores the bonds that form between addicts, and “Like A California King” taps into Alexakis’ inner rage in surprising ways. What came after, however, was harder to stomach. Singles like “AM Radio,” “Rock Star,” and “Volvo Driving Soccer Mom” were vapid enough that, to Everclear fans, the band’s evolution from post-grunge sensitivity to pristinely polished pop-rockers began to feel like a betrayal. Alexakis’ individuality diminished, as did the band’s relevance in pop culture. The more he tried to connect with an audience, the further they seemed to drift away.
Keown was onto something in that episode of FANatic: Despite it feeling so particular to one man’s journey, there is a universality to Sparkle And Fade. That’s because it’s not the event that people relate to, it’s the specifics: a line of dialogue, a scar, an animated movie playing in the background. And it’s not the band we relate to, it’s the heart beating at its center. In Sparkle And Fade, Art Alexakis made something not for MTV or for Montoya and Eklund or for Keown. He made something for himself, but we were with him every step of the way.