Saturday, September 23, 2017

15 Years Later: Tonic's "Head On Straight"

Certain moments stick in our minds, etching themselves into who we are, to the point where no amount of filing can erase the edges. They are formative experiences, and the roots of them grow so deeply around our musical hearts that the elements seep into every decision we make afterwards. We think we are freely choosing which path we take, but our musical taste is imprinted early on, and can rarely be changed.

I had just turned nineteen the week before, and my excitement was far higher for my trip to the record store the next week. In the previous few years, I had gone from a musical neophyte to someone with a favorite band that would wind up sticking at least through the present day. Tonic's first two albums, after they were able to sink in, opened my eyes to a new world of music. They came to explain who I am, musically, so it was with great anticipation that the release date of their new record crawled towards me.

I can still remember driving down to the record store that Tuesday, as soon as my classes were over. The store didn't have many copies, since there were sure to be few Tonic fans in my hometown, and tha band's popularity was already beginning to recede from the mainstream. I picked mine up, and I fidgeted with the plastic shrink-wrap, failing to pry it open with my fingernail before getting home.

I quickly opened the album, and my first thoughts were disappointing. Tonic's usual aesthetic was missing from the cover, which was something I missed, as was the notable lack of included lyrics. As an aspiring songwriter, I was looking forward to dissecting the words to find inspiration for my own. The note directing me to their band's website for the lyrics was a cruel reality of the shifting modern times.

I can't remember my feelings upon first playing the record, whether my opinion was immediate or slow-growing. In time, I came to see "Head On Straight" as the black sheep of Tonic's career. Produced by Bob Rock, and featuring less acoustic guitars than any other Tonic record, it's a unique entry in their brief catalog. It can easily be argued that it was an attempt to do everything possible to maintain their stature.

What I've learned over these years is that black sheep have more fun.

"Head On Straight" is unique for Tonic in that it is their darkest, heaviest album. It was the one time they decided to show the world that they could rock as hard as anyone else. Their trademark melodies were still there, and they couldn't resist throwing in a complete pop song in "Believe Me", but the majority of the record is pumped Marshall amps and guitars that sound as big as the hooks.

Songs like "Roses" and "Liar" achieve the nifty trick of turning simplicity into a virtue. The riffs are only two or three notes, but they're so immediately understandable that you can't forget them. That's the same truth of Emerson Hart's melodies, which hit you in the face and feel like old favorites even before the songs are over. "Count On Me" is a song that proves when you have a good idea, you don't need to gussy it up with unnecessary doo-dads.

When people think of Tonic, they rightfully turn their attention to "Lemon Parade". I do it too (I did an entire week of coverage last year based on it). But revisiting "Head On Straight" over the last few months, I've heard in that record a side of Tonic I wish had come out more often. There was often a darker chord to Emerson's writing than his melodies and Jeff Russo's jangling guitars would make us think. In "Let Me Go", Emerson wrote:

I never thought I'd change my ways
It was an angry thought
That made me turn the other way
And I, I wanna be like that again
When I know there's hope
And hope will always find a friend

In some ways, that sums up the album. It was a turn in a direction the band may or may not have intended, and hope would win out as their next (final?) album would revert back to their usual form. That album would be once again like an old friend to fans.

But "Head On Straight" was something else, something that I gravitated towards as a teenager. And now that I'm older, it speaks to me on a different level, because it's an honest assessment of how life is a cycle of light and dark moments, just as the sun rises and sets. Fifteen years later, I think I love "Head On Straight" more than ever. It's the one Tonic record that feels like an open wound, and perhaps that's why it might just be the most powerful. Let you go? No, I intend to hold on as long as I can.

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