Platinum Anniversary Album Series
(14 March 1995 Columbia)
This post is not about the Matchbox Twenty album Mad Season, but about the grunge super group Mad Season.
I seem to remember liking the album Above a lot more when I was younger than I do today. That could be due to a number of things. The most probable is just a change in musical taste.
Of course, I believe I also got this album before the passing of singer Layne Staley. I think the opener “Wake Up” is probably the best song he ever penned. It’s a slow number with Staley telling someone to wake up from the struggles and pitfalls of drug addiction. The line “slow suicide’s no way to go” is made even more poignant by the fact that slow suicide is just the way Staley met his death. Heroin overdoses have killed far to many rockers people over the years, including the bands bassist John Baker Saunders, but I think the story of one of rocks biggest stars of the 90’s becoming a recluse and poisoning himself over a decade until his body couldn’t take any more abuse is perhaps the saddest story in rock.
Mad Season began when Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready met Saunders in rehab. They recruited drummer Barrett Martin from Screaming Trees to start a side project and thought it would be good for Staley to spend some time with sober friends. The results are a much more mellow and bluesy record than any of them produced with their main bands.
This isn’t really a big rock record. It’s more of a laid back coffee shop record. There’s a bit of distorted guitar on songs like “X-Ray Mind,” “Lifeless Dead,” and “I Don’t Know Anything,” but the band really shines on the clean ballads like “River of Deceit” and “Artificial Red.” There’s just something about McCready’s clean jangly guitar work mixing with the heartfelt lyrics Staley wrote that produces a heartfelt vibe. When you hear the words “my pain is self chosen” on “River of Deceit” it’s hard not to feel something. It can be hard to feel sorry for the death of a heroin addict. Once you go down that road there aren’t too many options left, but I think Staley knew that by the time he made this record.
Screaming Tree’s front man Mark Lanegan guests on the songs “I’m Above” and “Long Gone Day,” but the Staley/Lanegan vocal harmonies don’t really hold a candle anywhere near the Staley/Cantrell team. “I’m Above” also suffers from some weak guitar tone from McCready. The saving grace of “Long Gone Day” is the saxophone. The saxophone is not heard nearly enough in rock music anymore.
I recently read a list of the top “drug” songs in rock and the entire Dirt album was at the top of the list. I’m sure more than a few parents would make the argument that Dirt was a glamorization of heroin and drug culture, but Above is the exact opposite.
This definitely isn’t an album for a hard rocking good time, but if you’re looking for something to chill out to on the way to or from an AA meeting I’m not sure you could do any better.
For more Platinum Anniversary Albums: