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Formants: Hum, “Downward Is Heavenward” [USA, 1998]

An ongoing series on the albums that helped to shape the way I listen to music, and continue to make their way onto my iPod.

1998 should have been Hum’s year. In 1995, the Champaign, Illinois band scored an unlikely hit with “Stars,” a fuzzy-but-romantic slab of nerdy, stop-start alt-rock that doesn’t much resemble any other successful rock music of the period. The dense guitars were too crunchy for straight My Bloody Valentine worship, but Matt Talbott’s reserved, unpretentious vocal style was also miles away from his angst-ridden contemporaries, leaving the song (and its accompanying album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, which wound up moving a not-inconsiderable quarter of a million copies) as an entity all its own. 1998 should have been the year they managed to capitalize on their unlikely success, demonstrate their true potential, and hit alt-rock paydirt.

Instead, they made Downward Is Heavenward.

The mid-90s was a fantastic time to be a rock band on a major label, some of the time. You got ridiculous budgets to produce music videos, significant advances, and a whole lot of production coin as needed. (On the other hand, of course, labyrinthine contracts often stiffed you out of a truly satisfying payday.) Accordingly, Downward Is Heavenward hasn’t aged a day, sonically speaking. Tim Lash and Talbott’s guitars mesh together in a thick, churning morass, equal parts atmospheric and bruising, often with an acoustic guitar tucked away in one speaker, not to mention the seemingly thousands of pedal effects percolating in and out of the mix. This thing sounds expensive.

Had I been working for RCA’s PR department at the time, I’d have handled Hum with greater care. I would not have placed the band themselves in their videos, for instance; the ever-bespectacled Talbott looks more accountant than rock star, especially when stacked next to the band they most frequently (and incorrectly) drew comparisons to, the Smashing Pumpkins. Despite the major label coin, they were an indie-rock band at heart, and were accordingly – for the period, at least – completely unselfconscious in their image. I’d also have made a different single choice; “Comin’ Home” is short, punchy and by far the most aggressive thing on the record, which might play to certain markets, sure, but it’s also saddled with a 7/4 verse and a paucity of hooks. Sure enough, in the age where music video was still the best way to promote a band, “Comin’ Home” got a particularly silly one:

The album debuted at #150 in the Billboard Top 200 on Valentine’s Day, 1998. Where the “Stars”-led You’d Prefer an Astronaut sold a quarter of a million copies, Downward took a year to barely break 30k. (That number jives almost exactly with the video’s total hits to date on YouTube. Eerie.) Not too much later, an incident of equipment theft doomed the band for good.

This was the thanks they got for eclipsing their breakthrough recording.

Downward Is Heavenward evokes a few records that came before, and a whole lot that have come since, but doesn’t sound precisely like any of them. The contrast between Talbott’s unadorned, unfussy vocals with the meticulous dual-guitar sound is already distinctive, but it’s Talbott’s sci-fi-leaning lyrics that really separate it from the angst-ridden fare that ruled the period. The apocalyptic closer, “The Scientists,” seems to dream up a David Brin-worthy yarn in a little over five minutes, equal parts doomed love story and hypothetical cautionary tale:

She says “keep this benzene ring around your finger
And think of me when everything you wanted starts to end.”
And I saw living lusters form in pools beneath her feet
Invertebrates that only she can see
And I said, “what on earth are all these ampuls for?”
She says “exactly, we’re not gonna wait around here anymore.”
Systems back down slow, watch the dust cloud resend
And I will keep you, I will keep you to the end.

One song earlier, another cosmic love story cuts a very different figure. “Apollo,” recorded live in a music hall rather than in-studio like the rest of the album, is spare, gorgeous, and touching, but never precious. Unlike the typical alt-rock ballad, it doesn’t bother with embellishments like a string section or a climax fit for the rafters. The song even eschews the thick production values of the rest of the album, favoring a live-off-the-floor feel that suits the simple, lovely sentiment that rests in the lyric’s delayed punchline.

What’s really vexing about Downward‘s spectacular commercial failure is that it’s not like the album doesn’t feature anything radio-friendly. There may not be another “Stars” (which is still regularly employed in commercials a decade and a half later, such is its appeal), but at least a few tunes here might have served as serviceable follow-ups. Again placing myself in fantasy-sports RCA PR Guy mode, “If You Are To Bloom” strikes me as the retrospective natural single choice, with its Incubus-inventing intro, massive guitar entrance, insistence verse rhythm, and clever chorus harmony on the hook. Assuming it gained any traction, the mournful “Ms. Lazarus” would make a fine follow-up, with its careful blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and sobering, unusually earthbound lyric (“the way your headstone shines / I only wish that it was mine”).

But of courseDownward is an art-rock record from the late 90s, meaning it is Meant To Be Listened to As An Album. On that score, it’s one of the most meticulously crafted of the era, perfectly sequenced and loaded with sprawling, complex tunes. Four tracks break the six-minute mark, but none overstay their welcome; of these, “The Inuit Promise” is the standout. A careful listen reveals all kinds of elaborate, even virtuosic riffs on the periphery, but it’s the song’s wistful drive that really distinguishes it from the rest of the record, existing in some nebulous space between awestruck and lucid. A spoken lyric, the only one reproduced on the album’s spartan packaging, contain more mystery than the entire Soundgarden discography, though it’s barely audible:

Your solvents frozen here on the petal rung
Is all we have to see
Enlarged inside as we espy
The warming sea.

Downward is a fantastic showcase for emotionally-driven songwriting that’s neither openly plaintive nor obnoxiously self-interested. In that sense, it was never going to find a significant following in its own time. The band has reunited for shows a few times in the last decade, including as recently as 2011, but there are no plans for them to ever return on a full-time basis. Unlike At The Drive-In and Refused, their music doesn’t command enough of a following for them to really cash in on aging gen-Yers eager to dive back into the music of their youth. And so Downward and the rest of the band’s discography continues to linger in between complete obscurity and popular reclamation, held in stasis much like the album’s oddly timeless sound. There are worse fates.

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