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Holy Hell! Sublime Turns 20

Holy Hell! Sublime Turns 20

Sublime will seem ugly to a lot of people in 2016, and there’s no way “Wrong Way” could have been released as a single today.

What you get on Sublime is not the band’s original vision. Initially, leader Bradley Nowell wanted the album to start out with a short cover of Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” before segueing into “Doin’ Time,” which is now the album’s closer. The original sequencing was finally made available on the album’s 10th anniversary deluxe reissue back in 2006, and listening to that version, it’s astounding that anything but “Garden Grove” could be the first track. “Garden Grove” is truly one of the great album openers of all time, setting the stage for a world Nowell, Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson would spend the better part of the next hour completely inhabiting.

Wilson’s an itchy-fingered bassist and Gaugh slams the drums competently, but at the end of the day, Sublime is a character piece centered around Nowell. “Garden Grove” is his introduction: we learn that he’s from L.A., he’s got a badly behaved dog named Louie and he’s addicted to heroin. He wants to seem happy but there’s a big, black hole in his soul. His frank admission that he’s trying to seem happy when he’s not casts a dark shadow on the next song, “What I Got,” where he declares he doesn’t get sad when Louie runs away. Is he content or just numb? Is that why the music here is so consistently happy despite all the horrible shit he sings about?

One of Sublime’s strengths is it doesn’t hit you in the face with its pathos in the way Sublime’s fellow SoCal junkies The Red Hot Chili Peppers are wont to do with their ballads. The music here is always sunny, even when the content isn’t: there are no musical cues that tell you to feel bad, like strummed guitars or maudlin pianos. This, in spite of the lunk-headed nature of most of the album, makes Sublime a more layered and mentally engaging album than many of its alt-rock peers. In order to get the full emotional spectrum, you have to dig a little deeper, which is perhaps why it gets so many plays as bong-rip background music. From a distance, it’s harder to hear the hurt.

Apathy is a persistent theme. A lot of the album is about drifting through life with as little effort as possible; it’s slacker rock all the way. When his dog runs away, he just waits around until the pound calls. At one point, he’s too lazy to masturbate. In the album’s most self-conscious song, “April 29, 1992 (Miami),” Nowell joins the Rodney King riots just to steal all the shit he always wanted, hardly caring about the cause of the chaos and happy to just have a bottle of Crown Royal. I’ve seen plenty of interpretations of “Miami” as deathly serious, but I suspect that even with the wanton cultural appropriation throughout the album, the 27-year-old Nowell was too smart to just think the King riots were just about “screamin’ 187 on a motherfuckin’ cop.

If not, that would make “Miami” awfully incongruous with the sharp wit and photographic eye for detail Nowell displays throughout Sublime. Nowell never relies on cliche or empty aesthetic mumbo-jumbo, and even the song called “Under My Voodoo” is a tongue-in-cheek Hendrix pastiche. When he gets rolling on a lyrical tangent, like the laundry list of problems on “Garden Grove” or the stream-of-consciousness rants on “Jailhouse,” he sounds intoxicated by his own words. Delightful throwaway details abound, like the “seven horny brothers” that give “Wrong Way” a bit of fairytale whimsy it admittedly doesn’t deserve. The world he creates – one of heroin, oppressive sunshine, shitty venues, unmade beds – flashes vividly before our eyes.

His concerns feel distinctly local. “Garden Grove” isn’t about traveling down the interstate to the next stadium of screaming fans but about a trip in a van reeking of dogshit to play a five-dollar punk show an hour away. One of the first things Nowell steals in “Miami” is a P.A. to lug around for shows. This might strike one as odd given this record’s clout, but it’s easy to forget Sublime were never legends during their lifetimes. Nowell died of a heroin overdose before Sublime’s release, after which fans swooped down and gobbled up the album like so much carrion.

Nowell’s widow Troy has expressed concern that her husband’s death has overshadowed the music, but Sublime holds up astoundingly well – in part because it wasn’t bogged down by the trappings of major-label ‘90s alt-rock. Sublime sprawls to nearly an hour, as was common in the decade for bands luxuriating in the possibilities of the CD. But while bands like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots tacked on no end of extra solos and choruses to their songs, Sublime mostly just jam out. Some of these songs, like “Jailhouse” and “Pawn Shop,” may have been improvised on the spot. It also avoids the tinny, textureless sound typical of ‘90s super-producers like Rick Rubin; the Loudness War seems to have skipped Sublime on the draft.

And it’s easy to imagine Sublime would have been a commercial success even if Nowell had lived, because man, does he know how his way around a pop song. “What I Got” rips its melody from the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” and “Wrong Way”’s quick pop structure suggests he’s studied their ability to cram dizzying amounts of music into two minutes. His melodic gift is remarkable. Listen to the guitar pattern on the chorus of “Santeria;” I’ve tried playing it in band camp and it’s fucking hard. It helped that Nowell was intimately familiar with Jamaican music – not just ska and reggae but mento and dancehall too – and knew how folks like Yellowman fit great hooks into their music. He’s far from those rasta wannabes who heard Legend once.

And, at times, this pathetic low-life sounds positively angelic. Nowell is a fantastic singer. Check out the way his voice quavers and quiets down, soul-style, as he sings “he best go run and hide” on “Santeria.” Check how effortlessly he switches from pop melodicism to dancehall gruffness to half-rapping and back again throughout “What I Got.” Listen to the cartoonish frustration in his voice as he caps off that fantastic list on “Garden Grove” with “finding roaches in the POT!” And, though he’ll tighten his throat to sound like like a dancehall badman when he wants to, he mostly sings in a pure, clear tone closer to Paul McCartney’s. Throughout Sublime, he comes across like he’s barely concealing his big, fat heart behind layers of grime and apathy.

But in order to appreciate Sublime in 2016, one has to make a compromise. Some of the things Nowell sings about are execrable. Twice he puts himself in the role of pedophile, once on “Wrong Way” – where he “saves” a child prostitute from life on the streets after soliciting her service – and another on “Caress Me Down,” where he’s maybe fucking his daughter. On the latter, he affects a Spanish accent that makes Don Henley’s on “Hotel California” sound tasteful by comparison. And then, of course, there’s the ugly truth of a bunch of white guys taking cues from Jamaican and Latino culture. (On “Doin’ Time,” which rips Gershwin’s racist opera Porgy & Bess, he shouts out a guy named “Ras MG” who’s actually a white dude named Marshall.)

Sublime will seem ugly to a lot of people in 2016, and there’s no way “Wrong Way” could have been released as a single today. But the album is worth a listen as a record whose context – as a work of art by a dead man and as a bro-culture artifact – has often overwhelmed its content. This is one of the best pop albums of the 1990s, and even if you’ve heard it in the background at some stoner party and thought you had it figured, trust me – there are many layers to unpack.

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