Rereading Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary

The godfathers of emo return to enthrall and possibly embarrass you

As a thoroughly wayward dude who once incorporated all the lyrics to Sunny Day Real Estate's "In Circles" into a handwritten letter to a college crush—"Meet me there/In the blue/Where words are not/And feeling remains," etc.—I suppose I am the band's just-launched reunion tour's exact target demographic. Perusing video footage of that tour's first show last week in Tacoma, Washington, the jagged two-note guitar riff that kicks off "In Circles" triggers a shocking, almost terrifying communal roar of lust and elation, the sentiment a vibrant mixture of "Dude, I used to love these guys!" and "Dude, this song is still awesome!" and "Dude, why did I write out these lyrics by hand and mail them to a woman?"

This is the ideal reaction to a reunion jaunt, a soothing brew of warm nostalgia and clear-eyed reappraisal, owning the renewed adulation and fresh embarrassment alike, however that particular pie chart divides itself. Sunny Day Real Estate are extraordinarily well suited for this role. The Seattle quartet, hailed as godfathers of emo back when that word made you think of something other than "eyeliner," indulged the distorted guitar badassery of their grunge-era brethren, but added a brutal earnestness, a triumphant vulnerability smeared all over the shivering-vein adenoidal howl of frontman Jeremy Enigk. The band's 1994 debut and generally acknowledged masterpiece, Diary, earns the right to use the Ultimate Emo Album Title, whether you can understand what he's saying or not (dollars to doughnuts "I lost myself/When I looked in your eyes/Tried to disguise myself/Fear inside" found its way into somebody else's love letters). He is all but incomprehensible on the incomprehensibly titled "The Blankets Were the Stairs," snapping and snarling through a lovely little soft-verse-loud-chorus dirge that is evidently very meaningful to him and impenetrable to everyone else.

They were (probably still are) a weird, volatile bunch of dudes. Three of Diary's best songs are named "Seven," "47," and "48." Guitarist Dan Hoerner initially refused to play live in California. (He has relented.) Their 1995 self-titled, pink-covered follow-up was recorded under such a cloud of acrimony that it's way more half-assed both song-title-wise—tunes named after their time signatures ("5/4") or the phonetic sound the goofy guitar riff makes ("J'Nuh")—and otherwise. Among the band's internal issues: Enigk's abrupt conversion to Christianity, as announced in a bleeding-heart open letter he posted online, to his eventual regret. (Chatting with The Onion, Hoerner declared that "Jeremy was among the first victims of the Internet's ability to immortalize every single thing you say and do.") They break up. Dave Grohl poaches the thunderous, prog-tinged rhythm section for his own Foo Fighters; bassist Nate Mendel remains on board to this day. Enigk unleashes the first of several bizarre solo albums. ("Shade and the Black Hat" is the jam.) In '97, they reform without Mendel, put out two more records (including their actual masterpiece, the stupendous How It Feels to Be Something On), then break up again in 2001, though they soon reconvene—with Mendel, but without Hoerner—for a new, comparatively wan, since back-burnered band called the Fire Theft.

No idea what's happening here
Brian Tamborello
No idea what's happening here

That about brings us up to date.

So, the original SDRE quartet, onstage for the first time in a decade plus, with luxe reissues of Diary and the pink follow-up in tow. Both are worth revisiting; the renewed-adulation-to-fresh-embarrassment pie-chart split won't be any worse than, like, 60-40. Diary, of course, is the focal point, a lusciously monochrome panorama of surly 120 Minutes–baiting jams with mumbling lows and shrieking highs. Mega-cathartic closer "Sometimes" is paint-by-numbers quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUD alt-rock balladry, but that painting is blood-red, shockingly violent, startling in its carefully controlled, almost baroque ferocity. It has aged, but not diminished. Whether Enigk can still scream all the way through it without collapsing will be something to see. God, hopefully, is still on his side.

Early set lists seem to lean heavily, almost exclusively, on these first two records, and while "5/4" is quite beautiful, and the titular, muscular "J'Nuh" guitar riff an uncharacteristically playful hoot, it's a drag to give short shrift to those later, initial-reunion records. Fine if 2000's polarizing arena-prog thunderclap The Rising Tide gives you unpleasant King Crimson flashbacks, but to repeat: Something On is their true moment of zen, sharpening and emboldening Diary's guitar-thrashing maelstroms but adding gorgeous accents (delicate piano, oceanic synths) and an even more ferocious grasp of build-up and release, the unhinged, cacophonous climaxes of "Roses in Water" and "The Prophet" and "Guitar and Video Games" painting by nobody's numbers. They're playing that last one live now, at least, and God bless 'em: Overly sensitive, romantically inept, introvertedly combustible late-'90s college students could hardly ask for a better anthem, a better epitaph—"Never again, my dear/Shall we come dancing here/We'll play guitar and video games."

Of course, SDRE, if they ever were, are no longer 2009's most prominent college-radio reunion spectacular: Pavement blew them and everyone else off the map last week, as devoted fans scrambled for tickets to four Central Park shows happening in September of 2010. That's 10 years since their dissolution to reconsider how you feel about the band, and now a full year to reconsider how you feel about that band's reunion. It's far less likely you'll go back to Pavement's records and find your former obsession with them embarrassing, but that's because they never risked as much, a sardonic, irreverent, studiously half-assed gloss applied to everything. They wouldn't have named an album Diary in a million years. Which is not to say they didn't drop a few love-letter lines of their own ("So drunk in the August sun/And you're the kind of girl I like/Because you're empty/And I'm empty"), but no one approaches Sunny Day Real Estate in this regard, a deathly earnestness that both ages disastrously and never really ages at all. Like the letter says, the feeling remains.

Sunny Day Real Estate play Terminal 5 September 27

 
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