There was an episode of the T.V. Series Gilmore Girls where Rory ditches school and takes a bus to New York to visit Jess, the bad boy that she won’t admit to be being totally into. When she finds him, they do a bunch of cool New York-y things including a trip to a High Fidelity-esque record store where Jess picks up a copy of “Spiderland”, and asks aloud to no one in particular; “Who are Slint?”
The guy that we are led to believe is the owner of the store replies, “Grunge band out of Kentucky, two albums and an EP.” That sparse, direct answer is a record store clerk hallmark. It says, I’ve studied all of this backwards and forwards, and can answer any question about any band from any genre, and any time period. Only in this case, the answer was wrong.
I couldn’t believe that a show that I had long revered for it’s excellent music references, selections and artist appearances described Slint as a grunge band. I suppose to be fair, it’s probably the easiest reference point (era wise especially) for a wide audience to palate, but where grunge was all immediate, loud, raw aggression – the music of Slint took it’s time, creating a nervy atmosphere into which the heavy segments (of which there are plenty) could explode.
And what a nervy atmosphere it is. The title “Spiderland” was apparently formed based upon a comment from lead singer Brian McMahan’s younger brother who described the album’s sound as “spidery.” It’s fitting that a somewhat vague comment about an album whose sound is near impossible to pin down led to a title that invokes an alternate universe. It’s a universe where mundane details of isolation, and terrible accidents are revealed over music that creeps along rhythmically, and carefully laying a trap to ensnare it’s visitors. Rather like a spider weaving a web.
“Spiderland” was released on March 15th, 1991, almost six months to the day before Nirvana would unleash Nevermind upon the world, and change the musical landscape forever.
“Spiderland” would receive almost no acclaim upon it’s release. By the time the album hit the shelves the band had already broken up, and few seemed all that bothered by it. Reports indicate that the recording process was intense, to the point where band members are rumored to have been periodically institutionalized. Though they were offering another highly effective take on the quiet..quiet..quiet..LOUD approach to song structure it just wasn’t in line with the “Here we are now… entertain us” generation.
Spiderland could have easily slipped through the cracks. A post-humous release from a band based in Kentucky whose shortest song is 5 minutes and 5 seconds long. No matter how beguiling and well composed this record is, it could have so easily turned into a piece spoken of only by record store clerks. Instead, it’s now one of the most revered works in indie rock.
To fully investigate how and why this happened would take far more space and time than this blog post will allow. Many point to the inclusion of the album’s closing track, “Good Morning Captain,” on the soundtrack to Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids. That may very well be, but I think even something like that is just one element of a case of good old fashioned word of mouth. Perhaps college radio play of “Good Morning Captain“, was a bit more frequent with the Kids OST in rotation. So high school and college students would hear this song, and eventually want to hear the entire album from which it came. Those people would then form bands, people like me would get into their bands and read interviews with them where they talked about how much they loved Slint, and then people like me would buy a Slint record, and more often than not, that record would be “Spiderland” .
What has always fascinated me most about “Spiderland” is how gentle, and almost romantic most of the lyrics are in contrast to the unbelievably tense music.
Though each of the album’s six songs offer the great pop music tradition of tension and release, the tension that has been built is so considerable that it never really goes away. That coupled with a line like “Goodnight my love, remember me as you fall to sleep/Fill your pockets with the dust of the memory that rises from the shoes on my feet,” kind of starts to play with your mind as the album progresses.
I’ve listened to it in it’s entirety countless times, but I still feel nervous when I put it on. I feel like this will be the time that something unspeakably bad happens, and what I’ve been preparing for upon every other listen will have finally paid off.
Of course, nothing too bad ever really does happen – until we get to the poor, aforementioned “… Captain” – up to that point though, it’s all left to your imagination to fill in whatever you want. This would make for a good debate, actually. Which is more disturbing; the ambiguous ending of the album’s centerpiece, “Don, Aman” (“Don woke up, and looked at the night before. He knew what he had to do, he was responsible. in the mirror and saw his friend… “), or the grisly shipwreck scene laid out in cold detail during “Good Morning Captain“.
The answer is inconsequential. By the time “Good Morning Captain” (and the record itself) reaches it’s emotional apex you’ve likely become so invested in this simultaneously beautiful and terrifying world that you can’t fully leave. Like that aforementioned spider web, it could be such an easy thing to miss, but once you’re in it chances are you’re stuck for life.