I’ve played in a slew of bands over the years. Most were forgettable. More than a few sought attention through strange names. For a while in high school, I played guitar in a band called “Nietzsche’s Mustache” (seriously). We were decent—as kids’ bands go—but the name was perfectly terrible. I recall that some dim effort at cleverness and gravitas lay behind our tag, but I also know that the name was an homage to a band we loved at the time, Toad the Wet Sprocket. I’m not sure any of us, in the solipsism of youth, registered the irony of the Monty Python allusion.
Toad was then—and remains—among rock’s mid-level stars, a band who has sustained its popularity over a twenty-five year career with a modest legion of particularly-devoted fans. This is not to suggest that I don’t think they are a great band; in fact, I think they are habitually underrated. The arc of their career reflects in part the relative brevity of their tenure on the national scene and in part historical accident, as is usually the case with rock bands.
Toad really only had one big “hit,” the tad-too-earnest, slightly-too-sweet “All I Want,” one of the weaker tracks on the otherwise fantastic Fear (1991)—and it is perhaps this very earnestness that helped accelerate the band’s fade from the limelight in the mid-90s.
The classic phase of Toad’s discography, from Bread and Circus (1988) through Coil (1997), pretty much bookended the heyday of grunge and “post-grunge.” Fear remains, to my ears, the band’s high-water mark, and the band rightly celebrated that record’s 25th anniversary on this past summer’s tour.
But it was released within a month of the day that Nirvana’s cataclysmic Nevermind dismantled rock’s status quo. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill—another of the decade’s pivotal “Alternative” records and an album that luxuriated in bitterness and insularity while simultaneously exorcising both—dropped in mid-’95 and remains #7 on Billboard’s All-Time Top-200 (best-selling albums) chart.
Angst was ascendant in the 90s. From our current vantage, this seems ironic, given the period’s positive economic milieu and its promise of a new technological age—though to ratify a pervasive sunniness at the end of the last century is also to neglect that period’s profound generational and cultural transitions, let alone the tumult of the music industry.
“Alternative Rock” in the 90s, for all its mordancy, contrarianism, and self-absorption, did produce some momentous recordings (Radiohead) alongside the trite ones (Bush), but it’s worth remembering how rock’s flirtation with anger and acrimony imploded, right around the turn of the millennium—with Limp Bizkit singing about ramming cookies up people’s asses.
In that general climate Glen Phillips and the rest of Toad the Wet Sprocket (Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning, and Randy Guss), several albums into what seemed a thriving career, insisted on crafting sensitive, smart folk-rock—with three-part harmonies, moderately overdriven guitars, chords that resolved suitably, and the occasional mandolin; with literate lyrics that plumbed serious themes; with arrangements that eschewed attitude, dissonance, and resentment for decorum, tunefulness, and sincerity. They were, in a word, traditionalists. Given what we now know about the way the music world went, it all seems a little quaint.
As a songwriter, Phillips’ artistic leanings haven’t changed much since the ’90s, through several solo albums, a set of exceptional, cross-genre collaborations (see Mutual Admiration Society and Works Progress Administration), and a spate of more recent Toad recordings.
I think he’s a fantastic craftsman, but at times his solo work can be a little precious and a little ponderous. His lyrics are sometimes prone to aphorisms, as if the homily inside the song wants to hijack its aesthetic needs. I feel this most acutely on 2005’s Winter Pays For Summer, which seems overwrought, despite its impressive guests (Jon Brion, Sam Phillips, Ben Folds) and major-label sonics (the record was released on Lost Highway/Universal). (It’s known that the outtakes from Winter’s recording sessions included a cover of Gillian Welch‘s “Revelator”—perhaps a good idea—and a song called “Chapel Perilous”—probably not.)
Yet the moral thrust of Phillips’ work, in total, seems to me consistently uncommon in rock and pop of the last twenty years. One has to admire his tenacity, his desire to keep honing his craft and, as significantly, consider its implications.
Phillips has said that his new record, Swallowed By The New (which was released on October 7th), is a “breakup record,” a set of songs charting the dissolution of his marriage. But he has also spoken of his determination to remain open to the ways in which the divorce might alter his very understanding of himself as an artist: not merely how the songs might serve therapeutic ends for himself, but how they might prove cathartic for others.
As he said to Richie DeMaria of the Santa Barbara Independent this past spring, “I had a big shift in how I thought about music. I always felt it was narcissistic, and asked myself, ‘What is the function of this stuff in the world?’ I feel this is the first record of songs and materials that have served a purpose. I want this record to get to people who are in mourning. That’s actually its purpose. It’s not about the radio or music magazines.”
This isn’t the first time Phillips has confronted the potential of life to wreak havoc. Emily Maxwell over at American Songwriter wrote recently about an injury that Phillips suffered several years ago, which “severed the nerves in his left arm and nearly ended his career,” and in that article Phillips, himself, talks about the origin of the first song from the new album, “Grief and Praise”: “The title for this song came from a Martin Prechtel talk…He describes grief and praise as being the mirrored aspects of love in the face of inevitable loss: Praise is grieving what we love and will lose, grief is praising what we love and have lost…It’s the core of everything this record is about.”
The song offers a worthwhile epitome of both Phillips’ chief songwriting qualities and his personal optimism (even in this fractured political season). Like much of his work, the song is rooted in a simple folk arrangement; it’s almost hymnal in structure, its lyrics proffering a kind of oracular faith in human connection, despite the world’s slings and arrows.
I’m reminded of something the author Andre Dubus said in an interview, not long after an accident had taken one of his legs and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life: “Some of my characters now feel more grateful about simple things—breathing, buying groceries, sunlight—because I do. We don’t have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”
So it isn’t about the fame, the “great life.” I would have loved to see Toad, circa 1995, ascend to a level of prominence realized by what were, in my mind, much lesser bands (Hootie, I’m looking at you, here.) And I’m sure there’s a part of Phillips that would have celebrated that level of success, too. But I’m quite sure he doesn’t think about that now.
The Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, whom the Inquisition burned at the stake in 1600 for, among other “heresies,” acquiescing to Copernican astronomy, is purported to have asserted, in his defense, Est aliquid prodisse tenus—literally, “something [written] should go down,” or as Northrop Frye once glossed it, “it may still be something [merely] to have made a statement.”
Here is the notion that regardless of how one’s arguments or sentiments are greeted by the world, it is vital to enter the debate, to attempt to suss out our predicaments, to become part of the conversation.
A song is above all a language for understanding, and we are poorer for not having at least tried to get it right. In the end, it may be all we have.
So I’ll gladly listen to a few more of Phillips’ hymns and homilies.
Glen Phillips’ Swallowed By The New was released on October 7th.
You can find his upcoming solo tour dates here.