Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary
by Chad Jewett
For a genre that has expressionism built into its name, I’m not sure emo has ever fully metabolized the emotional stakes of Diary. The album still sounds vital because it still seems to break the distancing boundaries we put around art, edging into something less controlled and more purely naturalistic, even a little unsettling. To some extent it’s a matter of scale. As I’ve written elsewhere on this site, emo’s regrouping (around 2009) had a lot to do with how the humble, everyday scope of Cap’n Jazz or American Football or even Braid could offer a way of re-accessing emo’s early aesthetics without risking any proximity to the versions of the genre that made it and unworkable, million dollar boys club. The way back from the Warped Tour was through the basement. Emo’s recent renaissance had everything to do with re-centering post-hardcore music around a sound that was idiosyncratic, tangled, difficult, fraught, self-absorbed — largely because it couldn’t be confused with the version of “emo” that was equally self-absorbed but also bitterly cynical, misogynist, calculated. Write enough songs that tie themselves in knots like “Little League” and it becomes clear that what’s going on is an attempt at re-circling the wagons around something more sustainable and even (at its best) socially responsible, something that doesn’t have quite the same problematic baggage.
But Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, which turns twenty this week, doesn’t seem to fit in much with that conceptualization. Emo has fallen in love with a certain kind of virtuosity — the kind built around algebraic guitars and post-bop drums — and fallen out of love with another – the sheer dramatic expansiveness of Diary and its instincts for the bombastic and the operatic. In some ways, Sunny Day’s red-letter album now shares a fate with End On End, the sole LP from D.C. emo-core originators Rites of Spring. Both albums are recognized as landmarks, as floor-plans, as Big Bangs. It’s just that nothing really sounds like them anymore. In the purest aural sense, Rites of Spring was essentially mid-Atlantic hardcore lashed with coiling guitars nicked from new wave and post-punk bands, and that part of the equation can’t help but remain. No, what’s missing is the sheer expressive force of Guy Picciotto, his self-immolating confessionals, his ability to make the personal political and vice versa, the sheer weight of consequence that gushed from his fraying melodies. As I wrote in my review for Two Knights’ absolutely essential Shut Up, only that band’s singer/lyricist Parker Lawson seems to be that committed to self-critique at all cost.
Similarly, there might not be any real echoes of the wrenching honesty theater of Jeremy Enigk. Listening to Diary twenty years later, it remains striking that Enigk’s four minute passion plays are still so poignant, so affecting, but also so otherworldly. There is a long history of “Jeremy Enigks”, both before and after Diary, all with strikingly similar narratives. Indeed, in some ways the story of Sunny Day Real Estate might most resemble that of J.D. Salinger, a wunderkind who found his deeply personal, religiously-weighted creations rapturously embraced before he ever had time to adjust to the thought of so many people standing on the other side of a mirror that he had assumed was one-way. Like much of Diary, Salinger’s stories were about crises of faith, about how the various changes, pains, and raptures of every day life double as and echo epiphanies. For Salinger, the very act of writing became a sort of religious exercise, something like a monk tending to the plants, St. Francis preaching to birds.
You get the sense, two decades later, that there’s something similar at work in Enigk’s work on Diary (which arrived a few years before the singer announced his conversation to born again Christianity). Like Picciotto in Rites of Spring, so many of Sunny Day Real Estate’s songs seem to pivot around Enigk whipping himself into a frenzy or pushing his voice into painful registers or letting notes hang until only the cracked top of his voice is capable of holding them. Consider the album’s closing track and just how far Enigk stretches the word “Sometimes” or the entirety of “The Blankets Were The Stairs,” the album’s most placid, gentle song, a calm surface along which the singer’s voice cracks, scrapes, bows over, runs out of breath. Lyrics like “Inferior, my hand to heal your wounds / Won’t heal my longing for your warm embrace” register as uncomfortably earnest, even vaguely bathetic, but of course a title like Diary implies an intimacy, a closed-circuit of listenership that was swiftly belied by the ways in which the album was embraced as some sort of truth, a post-Cobain guidebook for ways of feeling.
In that sense we might understand Diary as the first chapter in a trilogy that includes Pinkerton and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (and perhaps continues with Brand New’s harrowing 2006 album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me), albums that were almost self-destructively expressive, wide-open the way scraped knees and paper-cuts are open. And like those albums, Diary had a similar outcome. Rivers Cuomo’s response to the weird mixed reception of the at-times troubling Pinkerton (seemingly “hate” dashed with “uncomfortable adulation”) was to abscond to Harvard and return with the plastic pop surfaces of The Green Album. Jeff Mangum, similarly unable to cope with the attention paid to the deeply personal, daringly transparent Aeroplane, perhaps even troubled by nightly exorcisms of the ghosts that haunt that album, became something of a hermit, a European version of Alan Lomax, travelling the Balkans in search of a sound, an aesthetic, an answer, something.
Sunny Day Real Estate wrote the monochrome-covered, untitled 1996 album that has come to be known as LP2, a record of gorgeously byzantine post-hardcore abstraction that hid anything resembling emotional confession beneath layers of patchwork poetry. Replacing the torn-up reveries of passages like “The rain was there to wash away my tears / I wanted to be them but instead I destroyed myself” (from “Grendel,” a pained, child-like hermit creature that serves as a decent spirit animal for Enigk) were imagist missives like “Call the clerk, remind me Tuesday / One pumpkin knife to pry out our hands on plastic wounds,” words that were still as elaborately chosen and gorgeously designed as ever, yet which hid “meaning” behind codes and archetypes. There remained that aura of mythic suburbia, of the existential crises of American youth, but now those ideas were locked inside totems of birds, jack-o-lanterns, fields, stars, abstractions like “time.”
In a sense, Diary remains un-mined, a gorgeous museum piece that has somehow gone untouched by reproduction. There are bands that glean oblique angles from the record. Balance and Composure share some of the band’s sense of drama, its supple way with quiet/LOUD dynamics. Alkaline Trio pushed the suburban gothic shadings of the album’s darker moments for all they were worth. There are caustic, explosive moments on the album that would show up in At The Drive In a few years later. Annabel’s bass-lines glow with melodies similar to the tuneful ribbons Nate Mendel would spool throughout songs like “In Circles.” Some of the tangling guitar vines of the album’s incredible opener, “Seven” can be found in much of contemporary emo, though dosed with the playfulness of post-hardcore’s mid-western golden age. Ultimately, few bands have deployed the mixture of barbed post-hardcore and reverent spaciousness that defines Diary. There remains something discomfiting about the album, even as its eleven songs are undeniably compelling.
In some sense, it might be best that the lessons learned from the album are minimal and abstract. For all the striking pathos of the Diary’s most fearlessly expressionist passages, there is an uncomfortable tendency towards self-destruction and myopia that grows even more troubling when it’s prized as some sort of answer, as it supposedly was when audiences would (reportedly) attend Sunny Day concerts like therapy sessions – or like Sunday mass. Diary is a marvel because of its singularity. In some ways it resembles Van Gogh, and like “Wheatfield With Crows” or “Starry Night,” there’s a nagging off-note in the questions we should ask ourselves about why we’re entranced by art so closely tied to pain. Some of the album’s most blood-letting passages come across like something not fully understood by anyone involved, thus disconcerting to everyone involved. Of course this doubles as the chief explanation for the album’s magnetism, for better and worse.
What ultimately does begin with Diary, and what was learned from Sunny Day Real Estate, was the power that emo had to turn the daily narratives of suburbia into pocket-symphonic cinema. Like Salinger, in fact, records like Diary are beautifully shaped to the discoveries we make as youths, to the mixed-feeling poetry of hometowns, cul-de-sacs, lawns. The downside of all of that remains emo’s frequent distance from the outside world, its inability to even attempt to connect to (or at its worse, even embrace) anything beyond those suburbs. The upside is the almost Whitman-esque exploration of ecstatic dramas set in our own backyards. There is both very little and quite a lot of Diary in Clarity, in American Football, in “Firefly” and Home, Like No Place Is There and Whenever, If Ever. Perhaps we got supremely lucky with the ways in which Diary has come to be both a landmark and a Rosetta Stone. It remains an unchipped cornerstone, and a guidemap. A singularity and an aura. You can spend a week with your record collection and hear both nothing like it and everything built to its transcendent shape.