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As a chronicler of lovelorn angst Gedge was without peer in the late '80s, his earlier songs essaying the frustrations and trivialities of doomed relationships. Their full-length debut George Best Plus (1987) may have been musically samey but packed a lifetime of wry and truthful lines into tracks like 'Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?' and 'Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft'. 1989's Bizarro refined the formula a little but it was still all about the fast-paced jangle and deft observations.
The biggest indicator that Seamonsters was going to be different was the presence of uber-misanthrope Steve Albini as producer. The former Rapeman guitarist cares little for vocals, preferring to keep them low in the mix in favour of an enhanced rhythm section. Whilst Gedge's vocals were always low and mumbled anyway the focus on bass and drums added another dimension to the band's sound. Suddenly the chirpy, punky thrash had been replaced by huge swathes of feedbacking guitar and drums that sounded like they were bursting through the speakers.
In short, the most quintessentially English of indie bands had gone grunge.
The opening chords of 'Dalliance' set the scene: slow, rumbling bass intercut with sinister chiming guitar and Gedge's words, more serious and bitter than ever before. By the time the low menace of the verses builds into a climactic cacophony of frenzied guitar the listener is in no doubt that this album will be ugly, bruising and completely unsanitised.
The point is proven by the following track 'Dare'. Melodically, it could sit on either of their two previous albums. It's pacy and punky with a hint of the old jangle. But even a casual appreciation of the lyric tells a different story: "Stay all night - I dare you/Who is gonna know?/I can't believe you want to go/Yes, alright, I scare you/But you're just as bad as me/I know where I'd rather be."
'Suck' is darker still; employing the loud-quiet-loud dynamic pioneered by the Pixies it finds Gedge wailing his unrequited adoration of a woman who sucks out his soul. By contrast 'Blonde' (all the titles are one word, emphasising the album's directness) feels almost exultant with its soaring guitars and affirmative admission of failure: Yes I was that naïve.
Impressive as all this pitch black self-loathing may be it's a relief to find 'Rotterdam' lodged squarely in the centre of the album. Largely acoustic and certainly more mellow, there's no way it could be described as optimistic, but it's at least more reflective and less abrasive than its surrounding songs.
It also includes one of Gedge,s most perceptive, ambiguous couplets for its chorus: "Stayed with you/My heart began to sing/Wanted you but not the way you think." However, this is only a temporary hiatus, as the squawking stop-start rhythms of 'Lovenest' hoves into earshot. If there is one sound that encapsulates the mood and tone of Seamonsters it is Simon Smith's propulsive drum solo on this track.
Kicking in directly after each chorus, it is so loud, one-note and unremitting that the first time it occurs you have to check that the CD hasn't stuck. Once you get used to it, it transforms the song from a run-of-the-mill thrasher to a full-on sonic implosion that perfectly mirrors the emotional torment of the lyrics. We have peered over the edge of the abyss but, so far, we are still standing.
And things do get a little lighter now, for a while at least. 'Corduroy' is the most well known song from the album and it's easy to see why. True, the verses may be dark and sludgy but when the clouds burst over the chorus it's like we've travelled back to 1987. The lightness of the guitars and more upbeat vocal turns a tale of broken relationships into a whimsical slice of nostalgia: "He's just a boy/Probably dressed in corduroy/He grew up fast/But you've not changed at all."
'Carolyn' abandons any pretence of vocal clarity to reduce Gedge's mumblings to indecipherable background noise. But the melody is bright and the strumming infectious, although the lyrics could be about baby murder for all we know.
The bitterness returns with the penultimate 'Heather', but there is a self-righteous anger in Gedge's voice that is much more healthy and reassuring than the romantic defeatism of earlier tracks. The song's subject matter is more straightforward too: Gedge's ex is taking her new beau to the same places that she and Gedge used to frequent when they were lovers and Gedge is understandably pissed off about this.
However, if we thought we were out of the woods with all the misery and despair then closing track 'Octopussy' shatters those illusions comprehensively. Running for six minutes, 'Octopussy' is plain scary; Gedge coming on like some stalker or abusive partner, obsessing about family and constant contact with the song's muse: "Don't take away your hand like you ought to/You've become my family/Don't want to understand why I need you/You've just become my family."
Musically it is less fraught than much of what has gone before but that very serenity is unnerving considering the disturbing allusions of the lyrics. As it meanders to a close it leaves a strong sense of dread and menace unusual in popular music.
So Seamonsters is a decidedly uneasy listen and not recommended for those who like their pop fluffy and inconsequential. But in its unflinching honesty and vulnerability, it superseded the slew of grunge albums coming out of Seattle at the time as well as laying foundations for emo and more inward-looking metal. Anyone who has just been through a particularly messy break up will find something on this album that is pertinent and empathetic - just be sure to hide any sharp objects before pressing play.
Try this if you like:
Alice in Chains
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
My Chemical Romance