For two albums -- 1987's George Best and 1989's Bizarro -- The Wedding Present pushed jangle-pop to its speedy brink, bringing a punk edge and sneer to their melodies and delivering something closer to rattle-pop. Because it wasn't that they let chords ring out the way jangle-poppers do. No, instead frontman David Gedge and guitarist Peter Solowka set land-speed records with their strumming, streaming together lightning-quick thrashes of chords that inevitably ran together into some of the most brittle, beautiful racket you ever heard.
It was a great backdrop for Gedge's tales of heartbreak and alienation. He was cutting and sardonic, always lamenting the latest relationship to crumble. But for all the angst of these songs, The Wedding Present threw very contained tantrums. There was something internal about this sound, not that typically punk unleashing of pent-up aggression, but rather an internal swelling, an anxiety that grows and grows but never finds release.
That is, until the third record, 1991's Seamonsters. The sound may still be cutting, but the approach changed drastically here. They enlisted Steve Albini to produce the record, and Albini (of course) blew their sound up into a combative wall of drums and guitars. The stumming still goes off in fits from time to time, but here it's more about texture and space. If the first two albums were hyper-articulate rages, Gedge beating himself up all the time, this is where the dam bursts. Where all that frustration manifests itself in an all-out attack. This brokenhearted leviathan is coming for us, and the results are huge and troubling and excellent throughout.
Perhaps most interesting is how the shift in sound changes Gedge as a singer. His curled speak-singing , which has a limited range but no limits to its emotion, was always awash in the mix, murked up with all the guitars and bass in their scrappy early recordings. But with Albini everything gets more power here -- the drums are, unsurprisingly, punishing throughout, the guitars lacerate and bass throbs -- except Gedge's vocals. Instead he has to fight through the volume, and the listener on the other side has to fight through that same volume to hear him. Opener "Dalliance" starts humbly enough, with spacious, moody guitars hooks and soft drums, but Gedge's voice can barely find its ground. He's not whispering, but he's certainly not projecting either.
It's not until they build to the chorus that you can follow Gedge as he snaps, "I don't care, now that you've gone, that you know how much I miss you." It's here that the song and the album take off. Gedge never shouts but asserts himself into the songs by degrees, and the band proves brilliant at trading punk speed for a more emotive and resonant strength, this is shaped and spacious volume top to bottom. It also echoes the broken communication Gedge is mired in throughout the record. If you look back at that chorus in "Dalliance," it not only starts with an out-and-out lie -- apathy is not a problem on Seamonsters -- but its confused syntax gives away both what Gedge wants and what he's trying to hid. The absence of his lover is right up front, that he missed her is the last thing he finally admits.
Even when he seems like he's being up front here, he's not. On the fiery "Dare" he admits "Yes, all right, I scare you," but he seems to be giving in to an oft-asked question, backed into a corner and trying to fight his way out with a sad truth. On "Corduroy," when he insists to someone "don't say a word, just hold me," it's more self-delusion than sweetness. He knows there's bad news coming, he's just trying to put it off as long as possible, cling to the fleeting connection he's made.
So if this is a lashing out, it's not always honest and it's not always articulate, but that's what makes the wounds here so raw, and the songs surprising and fresh. The music may be as punishing as Gedge's tales, but its also capable of an impressive breadth of textures. "Carolyn" shimmers on acoustic guitars until overdrive guitars slice into the second half of the song. The lead guitar on the overcast "Heather" bawls anchingly, both crumbling and restrained, leading us to the one moment here where Gedge loses his cool and screams.
Huge closer "Octopussy" brings all the space and power of the album together into one crashing blow. It feels simultaneously like a final catharsis, the sea creature in exhausted repose, and like a calm before a second storm. When the song ends, over fuzzy layers of guitar, with Gedge insisting "we don't have to go anywhere," it feels more like a trap than blissful domesticity.
Seamonsters is a damaged album, one about letting fresh wounds scab while digging deep into older ones. But while the emotions are broken -- and Gedge's lyrics are brilliant and subtle in their collapse throughout -- the music itself is strong. Albini, known for his own combative personality and corresponding production sound, was the perfect foil for the Wedding Present. It turns out that once they turned the tempo down and the volume up, built the textures and ignored the sneering punk speed, they could realize their full strength as a band. This was the last record the band recorded with the original line-up -- Solowka was kicked out after this record was finished -- and there's been a revolving door of players around Gedge ever since, but this is the most compelling moment in The Wedding Present story. They would move on to brighter pop sounds, and do so effectively on albums like Watusi and Saturnalia. Those albums, though, in their sonic complexities, reflect lessons learned on Seamonsters, the band's finest hour and one of the great heartbroken rock records in recent memory.
For all the celebrating we did in 2011 for big albums that turned 20 years old, most of us neglected Seamonsters. But short of Nevermind, this deserves as much attention as any of the records we were waxing nostalgic on last year. Now that it's turning 21, though, perhaps we'll come around to this one all over again. The Wedding Present will do their part -- Gedge is taking the latest iteration of the band on tour to play Seamonsters in its entirety later this year -- but dig through the stacks in your house or in your local record store and pull this one out. You may just find yourself sitting up against the speakers, straining to hear Gedge's buries vocals while all those crashing drums and swirling guitars push you well on your way to long-term tinnitus. But hey, it'll be worth it.