Sublime, by Sublime (Spotify Link)
1996, MCA. Producer: Paul Leary and David Kahne
In My Collection: CD 1996.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Sublime, the 1996 album from Sublime, isn’t as good as I thought it was 25 years ago. It’s got some fun sounds, and the rhythm section of Eric Wilson on bass and Bud Gaugh on drums is tight and consistent. Bradley Nowell sings bro-ey songs and plays the git-tar like a MFing riot, at times, but at 17 songs the album is just way too long and starts to sound pretty much the same. But there are a few great songs, and they still sound great. I don’t know if I’d classify it as a favorite album now, but it was back in the 90s!
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: N/A.
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When I see the cover to Sublime, I’m immediately taken back to the first time that – as a music fan – I felt old. By 1996 I was comfortable in my knowledge of the new sounds of the 90s. For a while, I had even been a very small part of those sounds. I still viewed myself as fairly hip – even though I had found plenty of folks hipper than me in my city of San Francisco. But I should have realized when I heard the news that Sublime’s singer OD’d on heroin before I ever heard one of their songs that my facade was crumbling. Life Lesson: if a musician’s death makes the news and you’ve never heard of his band, you are clearly lagging, pop-culturally speaking.
But I was 29 and acting in plays while working in a lab in Palo Alto, and I guess I just lost touch. I purchased the Sublime album after hearing a few songs on the radio. My new wife and I played it a lot and we loved it. The second clue I missed was radio airplay. I knew from years of music fandom that by the time something is played on the radio, its time as “cool” has surely passed. But none of these indicators blipped for me when I heard two young, recently-graduated Research Assistants in the lab mention the band. Like an elderly jackass I butted into their conversation with, “That record is so good!”
“It’s great!” they enthused. “But the new one sucks,” one of them continued.
“Oh, really?” I countered, recognizing my gaffe. “The new record’s bad?”
“Totally sucks. 40 oz. was so great, and this new one is just shit.” They were fans of the band’s previous effort, 40 oz. to Freedom. They thought the record I loved was trash, and I became very aware of my new place in life as “older guy.” I’ve grown comfortable with this place over the years, but that first realization was quite a shock. I chose not to share further musical opinions with them that day.
I don’t recall what those guys’1 beef with Sublime was all about. I think – like most fans – they just preferred “the old stuff.” But there are a lot of things that might turn people off from Sublime.
The band co-opted a lot of different sounds – ska, hip-hop, punk, latin pop – and I know that can rub folks the wrong way. They also had a bit of dumbass-douchebag-misogyny in them. Plus, leader Bradley Nowell was a California beach kid who sailed and went to college, yet liked to sing about “the ‘hood” and project a kind of gangster affectation, and this is most definitely annoying.
But none of that mattered to me. I just liked the melodies and sounds on the record. And at 17 songs, there’s a whole lot of them on Sublime. They could’ve omitted a few songs and made a better record, but as someone who doesn’t have an editor, and has published some extremely lengthy posts, I shouldn’t be too harsh about that.
I haven’t listened to this album in a long time. My memories of bopping around to it in the kitchen with my new wife, singing along while we cooked dinner, are the reason I selected it, and began writing about it. I have a nostalgia for a very specific time (1996) and place (Coleridge St.) when thinking about Sublime, so it seemed like a good one to pick for this project. But listening to it again after 25 years, I have to say … I kind of agree with those two dudes now. I mean, I wouldn’t say the record sucks. It’s got some catchy tunes, and a few excellent songs. But on the whole, my feeling is “Why was I so into this record again?”
But I’m not going to crap all over it. It seems really burdensome, though not altogether unfunny, to assemble a bunch of insults about a 25 year old record. What’s the point? So I’ll just hit the highlights and try to remember the lesson Thumper taught us all as children2.
Sublime opens with a catchy groove of a tune called “Garden Grove.”
Drummer Bud Gaugh sets a shuffle pace, establishing a cool, mellow groove. The minimalist, reggae-style bass line from Eric Wilson has a nice sound. Guitarist/Singer Bradley Nowell, who sadly died of a heroin overdose before the record was released, has a fun-loving-but-poor-decision-making persona that comes across in his lyrics. He veers from the awe over the love that he found (reggae) and his devotion to his Dalmatian, Lou-dog, to stealing anything and putting needles in his arm. Then, after impressively using the word “shit” three times in six lines, he joyfully rattles off a list of horrible living conditions (picking up trash on the freeway, living in a tweaker pad, etc) before finally inviting you, the listener, to join him. It’s a testament to his friendly style that my reaction is to say “Thank you, no,” instead of immediately fleeing.
The song also keenly uses the P-Funk hooting-organ sound from “Mothership Connection” that made millions for Dr. Dre. Sublime’s penchant for adopting hip-hop sounds is best exemplified on the next song, their big hit “What I Got,” which features scratching and samples behind a folk-rock ditty.
This song remains one of my favorites from the 90s. Wilson plays a bubbly bass, and Nowell plays a guitar like a motherfucking riot (according to the lyrics). The cut-and-paste sounds, like the “tip-de-tip from me” and “to charity-ty-ty” lines, sound fun and fresh, even though it’s all kind of a rip-off of Beck. The song even has a nice message of love, even when faced with a mom who “hits the rock.” The official video of the song is nice, too, with the surviving band members watching video of Nowell and some of his favorite things.
“Wrong Way” is next, and it was also a bit of a radio hit. There’s a catchy melody. It’s got a bouncy, fun, ska sound, too, and even includes a cool trombone solo. This would make my mom happy, but she wouldn’t like the story of a child prostitute. I’m not too thrilled by the narrator’s annoyance that her tears ruin her makeup, or by his complaints that she continues to want to live the “wrong way.” “Same In the End” is a bit of a rave-up that I remember liking but that nowadays sounds kind of tiresome. Nowell does impressively spout lots of words in a short time, however.
“April 29, 1992 (Miami)” is one of my favorite songs on the record, and not just because of the sound.
The song describes the rioting that occurred after the acquittal of the fuckhead cops who beat Rodney King in LA in 1992. It uses recordings of actual police calls from Long Beach, CA, the band’s hometown, to supplement the song’s lyrics. The lyrics basically celebrate looting, which I don’t agree with, but give an insight into the mindset of some rioters. (The band purportedly participated in the Long Beach unrest. I’m not sure what “Miami” refers to.) The song’s got a groove and a menacing feel that climaxes as Nowell sings, “let it burn, wanna let it burn” at 2:48, and follows it up with a list of cities. That entire event – the trial, the acquittal, the riots – was very formative to who I am as a person, so I’m interested in any media dealing with it. And the song, though simple, rocks pretty hard.
So, the band is doing pretty well on this record so far. Lots of good stuff. And they seem headed for excellence when the next song, “Santeria,” mixes up the style and the pace of the album and provides a catchy singalong ear-worm (in a good way.)
I don’t want to get too over the top, but this song is the kind of changeup that brings to mind London Calling-level diversity of sound. It’s a bouncy number, and Nowell sings it with feeling. It’s a lost-love number that verges into toxic-masculinity-bullshit, but that hangs together on the strength of the melody. The bass is really cool, and Nowell plays a nifty little guitar solo at 1:33. Drummer Gaugh really provides just the right swing to give a Latin/Reggae feel.
To my ears, this is the point at which the band should have made some better decisions. I don’t need annoying songs like “Seed,” “Paddle Out,” and “Under My Voodoo,” or lesser retreads like “Pawn Shop” and “Get Ready.” Or a not-as-interesting remix of a good song, like “What I Got (Reprise).” (Although as recently as 2013 I did, apparently, as I rated the record pretty highly during my Big Listen.) But the band, particularly Nowell, were fans of overindulgence, so it makes sense that they didn’t know when to say “enough.” (Which, again, is something I can relate to!)
But when Nowell is really firing, even a simple song with a single groove and nonsense words really sounds great, as with the song “Jailhouse.”
Nowell’s guitar, in particular, stands out on this track. There are two guitars, at least, in the mix, and each one is doing something a bit different. Then he plays a couple different solos. At 1:50 he sounds very Classic Rock, then at 3:49 he squawks like a funkster. And Wilson’s bass again percolates to constantly move the song forward. It’s Sublime at its best. But then “The Ballad of Johnny Butt” sounds like the same song, only less inspired.
Nowell shows off some real guitar prowess on the raucous “Burritos,” a paean to doing nothing. (Or depression.) But the guitar is really great. “Caress Me Down” is a fun, catchy song that I wish I didn’t like as much as I do. It’s a horny-guy song, with some funny descriptions and some rather impressive bi-lingual rapping by Nowell. It’s a good example of the musical conundrum that is Sublime: an impressive blend of sounds and styles presented with an attitude that makes me roll my eyes.
But when it works, it really hits.
“Doin’ Time” builds around a sample of the Gershwin Porgy and Bess classic “Summertime.” Much like the opener, “Garden Grove,” a groove is established and sounds are layered on top to create a catchy, interesting piece that feels like time spent hanging out with the band. The lyrics bounce between repping their hometown Long Beach and lamenting a girlfriend who won’t be true. It’s a great album closer, a nice bookend.
Sublime is a record that – to my ears – hasn’t held up over the years, at least not as a whole. It’s got some excellent, all-time tracks. But there’s lots of filler, many skips. But you know what? Maybe I’m just getting old.
“What I Got“
“Same In the End“
“April 29, 1992 (Miami)“
“The Ballad of Johnny Butt“
“Under My Voodoo“
“Caress Me Down“
“What I Got (reprise)“