Saving Himself From a Sunny Day

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The New York Sun

For a brief moment in 1994, Sunny Day Real Estate was viewed as a possible successor to Nirvana. They hailed from the same city (Seattle), recorded for the same label (Sub Pop), and had built the same passionate underground fan base. But just as speculation was mounting, lead singer Jeremy Enigk became a born-again Christian and the band abruptly broke up. By the time they re-formed in 1998, the moment had passed, leaving fans to speculate about what might have been.

The truth is, Sunny Day was never a very good candidate for the job (just better than most). They sounded little like grunge, and even less like the copycat alt-rock bands that followed it. Still, predictions about their commercial appeal weren’t entirely off base, just premature. Sunny Day’s histrionic vocals, labyrinthine guitar parts, and soul-baring lyrics (their hit 1994 album was called “Diary”) laid the groundwork for another, more-recent crossover movement: emo. “All of the bands that came next were following … Sunny Day Real Estate’s tearstained map,” writes Andy Greenwald in his 2003 history of emo, “Nothing Feels Good.”

This accounts for the many young fans at Mr. Enigk’s sold-out show Friday night at the Bowery Ballroom. One I talked to had tickets to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Sonic Youth show the same night, but sold them as soon as he heard Mr. Enigk was playing. He wasn’t going to miss a chance to see emo’s elder statesman.

Mr. Enigk resisted (but didn’t seem to resent) the incessant requests for Sunny Day songs.The bulk of the night’s material came instead from his first solo album “Return of the Frog Queen.” The album’s lush, psychedelic arrangements (he had a 23-piece backing orchestra) surprised and delighted critics and fans when it came out in 1996. “Abigail Anne,” played early in the set Friday, was the kind of postmodern Irish folk song usually associated with Decemberist Colin Meloy. “Carnival,” with its topsy-turvy pacing and sprightly instrumental interludes (performed as keyboard samples Friday), sounded fantastical, almost Tim Burton-esque. “Shade and the Black Hat” was theatrical and overblown, with quirky Queen-like intermissions. It ended with him singing in a shrill voice over a riot of piano.

Mr. Enigk still has a remarkably adaptable voice. His natural voice has a pleasant, slightly reedy timber, not unlike Michael Penn’s. His falsetto is light and airy, with good range, making him sound a little like Phil Collins (especially when he played 1980s synth on one song).

Then there’s a whole other voice — high, hard, and silvery — that he uses at emotional peaks. It’s as if Mr. Enigk has an entire second larynx he can access by singing forcefully enough. There were moments Friday when it made him sound almost like the lead singer of a hair metal band (Queensryche, according to my notes.)

Judging from the songs he previewed Friday, Mr. Enigk’s second solo album, “World Waits,” due out October 17 on his own Lewis Hollow Records, will be another stylistic left turn. The songs are less intricate and more plangent than those on “Frog Queen.” “Been Here Before” began ethereal and chiming, but soared after an interlude of Phantom of the Opera pipe organ. The gossamer falsetto and painful earnestness of “River to Sea” brought to mind another set of references: emoting, helium-voiced Brits like James Blunt and Chris Martin. “I cannot change any man’s hate/but I can make know forgiving waters that flow,” he sang.

Fans have speculated endlessly about the role Christianity plays in Enigk’s music since his conversion.Certainly it’s important. “Jesus isn’t anything I want to compromise with for he is more important then [sic] this music,” he wrote in the much-discussed open letter to fans and band mates he released on the Internet in 1994.

Apart from the occasional mention of heaven, hell, and the Lord, however, Friday’s set wasn’t overtly Christian. Still, you couldn’t help interpreting songs about failure, forgiveness, second chances, and social ills as expressions of his faith. I read his humility and emotional groundedness the same way. “Forgiveness is a good thing,” he said apropos of nothing in particular at the conclusion of one new song.

Listening to Mr. Enigk, one realizes that emo and Christian rock aren’t that different after all. Both obsess about love and disappointment, both are constantly renewed by fresh hope. All that really distinguishes them is their subject matter: One is singing about tortured relationships, the other about tortured souls.

The New York Sun

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