The Third Album
(originally written 1989)
On their first LP, Big Star combined many of the forces that had defined pop music up to that time: rock and roll, psychedelia, folk, country, soul—to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. From the folk strains of “Watch the Sunrise” to the over-the-top arena rock of “Feel” to the countrified “The Ballad of El Goodo” with its stunning dynamic range, Big Star’s #1 Record showcased a band with seemingly limitless potential.
All the excitement generated upon hearing their debut is in fact overshadowed upon exposure to Radio City, their second LP. Here, with the unfortunate departure of Chris Bell, Alex Chilton takes full command of the pared down three piece. The results are astounding. Ideas not even hinted at before emerge full blown, like Athena from Zeus’s head. The raw, crazed “O My Soul” which leads off the record singlehandedly defines a new pop genre that was only to explored five or six years later by the likes of The dB’s and Elvis Costello. “Back of a Car”, “Life Is White”, and the timeless “September Gurls” showcase a talent straining to contain itself within the pop-rock format. The energy, emotion, and pure fun of this record have rarely, if ever been matched.
But it’s on “What's Going Ahn”, the album’s slowest, dreamiest number, that Chilton and Company establish the jumping-off point for what was to become Big Star’s third, and, alas, final record.
#1 Record, as wonderful and powerful as it was, spent more time looking backward than forward, and “Radio City”, for all its newness and excitement, still retained the flavor of a conventional rock record. “The Third Album” found Chilton breaking out of that mold completely, turning his back on the past so totally, that the result is a masterpiece the proportions of which we are still gauging. Here, Chilton has turned inward. "...Third…" is a record of such a personal nature—at once breathtakingly beautiful and ineffably alienating—that it's sometimes almost too painful to take in. Haunting tales of urban alienation (“Nightime”, “Big Black Car”), confusion (“Kanga Roo”), confession (“Oh Dana”), depression (“Holocaust”), and tenderness “(Take Care”, “Blue Moon”). The music, with its swirls of strings, its echoic, at times seemingly random-patterned drumming, and its gentle acoustic guitar, was like nothing heard before or since. “…Third…”, right alongside “Plastic Ono Band” is among the most powerful personal statements ever made by a “pop” artist.
But time had run out on Big Star. With each LP, Chilton’s personality became more and more overbearing, until finally, that delicate balance between creativity and discipline (madness and genius?) collapsed. In the immediate post-Big Star era, Chilton’s releases bathed him in an unflattering light of indiscipline and self-indulgence.
Big Star was gone, but its legacy continues to wreak havoc on anyone hoping to confine pop music to a safe niche where the parameters have all been set.