Going back and looking at Antichrist Superstar almost 30 years later was a valuable, if a bit exhausting, experience. I thought it might be fun to take another 30-year trip back, this time to a hit album coming in the wake of Nirvana, and one of the few albums my wife and I both owned as young teenagers.
Bush is a band you might remember from the 90s. If it isn’t, their debut album from 1994, Sixteen Stone, might be worth a turn. Billed as a grunge band, Bush was (and is, they are back in business) a fairly straight-forward rock band that fit the abstract idea of the “Seattle Sound” better than any earlier bands to get the label, including Nirvana (that sounds weird, but aesthetics are often idealized before they are realized). At the same time, they were a poppier version of the more art-rock inspired bands they were compared to. Sixteen Stone is an album that is packed with catchy tunes, though they are always couched in the saturated production and loose punk aesthetic that was popular in the first half of the 1990s.
Unlike the last album I reviewed from the 1990s (Antichrist Superstar), this album is not boring. The songs are driven by memorable guitar riffs and singable choruses, with the main flaw being that the album might be too pop-oriented to really stand up to contemporary 1990s albums. There were a string of hits from this record: “Everything Zen,” “Little Things,” “Comedown,” “Machinehead,” and the strings-laden ballad “Glycerine.” Frontman Gavin Rossdale was a certified heartthrob with his chiseled jawline and intense eyes, and he had a gravelly vocal delivery to contrast with his pretty-boy exterior. He even ended up married to Gwen Steffani, another 90s sex icon. The band and the man seemed handpicked to serve the American audience in the wake of Nirvana, and it worked. The album went 6x platinum (six million) in the US while only going silver (60,000 records sold) in the UK.
The production of the album bears some special consideration. Despite the very melodic nature of the songs, the production is sonically very saturated with a heavy-metal inspired guitar tone and a bass-heavy mix. If you want an example of the classic 1990s guitar tone, Bush has it in the form of fuzz mixed with overdrive, which gives the guitars a beefy sound that if used with different riffs would perfectly fit a doom metal record. Even though the whole album feels big and loud, Rossdale’s voice is never lost in the mix, and his harsh tone proves a good sonic match for the rest of the instrumentals.
Contributing to the wall of sound is the band’s approach to guitar playing. Rossdale and Nigel Pulsford (the lead guitarist) are continually splitting parts, either playing different chord voicings or totally different riffs from one another over the same harmonic rhythm. The entire range of the guitar is put to use and when the band needs to sound big—the two guitars work together to fill up every inch of sonic space. The band also does not play particularly tight, though not exactly sloppy, and vocals are overdubbed throughout. This approach has the interesting effect of obscuring the details each part, since they are both using such a saturated tone, making the band really sound like a wall of sound. This also makes repeat listens more intriguing, as it is difficult to pick out every nuance of the guitar playing in one listen.
There aren’t any real solos on the record, and that also makes the songs feel more pop-oriented. It’s all about the songwriting.
To that end, I should mention the lyrics. They are the perfect example of what kids thought was cool at that time in that they make absolutely no sense. Take a look at the first lyrics on the record (from “Everything’s Zen”):
There must be something we can eat
Maybe find another lover
Should I fly to Los Angeles
Find my asshole brother
Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Dave’s on sale again
We kissy kiss in the rear view
We’re so bored, you’re to blame
What the hell is Rossdale talking about here? The beauty of esoteric lyrics like this, whose meaning is known only to the band, is that kids can project onto them anything they like. They aren’t really “communicative” in the traditional sense, where a poet is trying to tell you something with intent, but totally introverted and therefore malleable by the listener (in a post-modern sort of way) to mean whatever you feel like would be good for them to mean. The album is packed with stuff like this, but I can’t be too critical of Rossdale because it seems like every other rock band was doing the same thing at the time.
Despite the very straightforward nature of this rock record there is a lot of creativity on display in the form of art rock and alternative influenced arrangements and guitar playing. The split parts are generally interesting and keep the simple melodies from getting stale. I mentioned the wall of sound but there are many quiet moments on the record, and the band knows how to take the energy level down when it serves the song. There’s a lot of dynamic contrast as a result.
With eleven tracks, Sixteen Stone does suffer the curse of the CD album era in that it has too much filler, but it’s not as bad as other albums, even in Bush’s own catalog. While there are a good number of hits here, there are some forgettable or even bad songs: Testosterone, Body, and Bomb are all well short of the quality of the rest of the album. And thus, my thesis that most albums top out at eight good songs holds up.
The last thing I’ll address is the cover. Dumb album covers were the rage in the 1990s. I thought it was always an attempt to be very artsy and “alternative,” and to make the music seem deeper than it really was. The orange 1s and 0s with the misaligned fonts and bad drop shadows are all intentional and represents the era perfectly, though I do consider it a “nothing” image. That’s what’s unique about Bush and their first album. The punk aesthetic of “We don’t care whether we suck or not” is there in the visuals and even the music, but the band doesn’t actually suck. They are competent musicians and songwriters.
Overall, a great example of the tail end of the corporate 1990s paradigm and probably still worth a spin today. Rossdale reformed Bush some time ago, and they are still releasing music. They even put out this high-production video in 2023 with a nostalgic theme, using a slicker, cleaner version of their classic sound. Just take a look at the comments. I can’t help but feel the comments and video create a meta artform – a conversation about 1990s nostalgia between the artist and the fans in an artform those fans were the first to grow up on. It’s a decent, song, too.
Obligatory “my art” plugs: