Holy Hell: Overcome by Happiness Turns 20

Holy Hell: Overcome by Happiness Turns 20

Overcome by Happiness remains a crucial hinge in the career of this at times gloomy songsmith.

In 1998, you would not expect the phrase “Overcome by Happiness” to be associated with the music of Joe Pernice. Best known as the central force behind the Scud Mountain Boys, an alt-country group put out some of the most melancholic ‘90s music this side of Red House Painters. But when he formed his next project, that’s exactly the phrase Pernice chose to inaugurate his new musical moniker.

The Scud Mountain Boys had released their last album at the time, 1996’s Massachusetts—the group is from Northampton—on Sub Pop, which took on the debut album by Pernice’s follow-up band as well. At the time, the label’s post-Nirvana success had begun to fade, and disagreements between the label’s creative partnership of Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman had dissolved, leading to Pavitt’s departure in 1996. Nonetheless, the label could still boast a roster of well-respected bands including Red Red Meat, Damien Jurado, Sunny Day Real Estate and even British band The Jesus and Mary Chain. Even among such distinguished company, however, Overcome by Happiness stands as one of the label’s most quietly influential releases.

Though Pernice’s voice sand-smooth voice is instantly recognizable and draws an immediate connection to the Scud days, there is something different about the album that marks it as a new project. The guitars are a little janglier, the harmonies a little brighter and the overall mood a bit sunnier—the arrangements often take on a more “lush” quality than the band’s predecessor might have opted for, as though Pernice had unlocked his inner Brian Wilson for the occasion.

Even a lush album, however, has its melancholy moments, whether on the short, yet poignant “Sick of You” (clocking in at barely ninety seconds) or “Dimmest Star” and “Chicken Wire,” whose chord changes sound most like something off Massachusetts. Elsewhere, strings heighten the drama on power-pop songs like “Monkey Suit” or piano ballad “All I Know.”

If there were a made-up genre for this kind of music, it might be something like “cinematic country.” Pernice’s storytelling abilities take on a more Technicolor feel, like when the horns kick in more than halfway through “Shoes and Clothes” or on the bouncy “Clear Spot,” whose tune on the verse almost sounds like the Sesame Street theme. These songs might not have the darkness that make Scud purists swear allegiance to Pernice’s earlier group, but they have a brightness all their own, and presage some of the great success Sub Pop would later have in releasing the music of The Shins, which certainly owes something to Pernice’s own work.

But as with any Pernice album, there is heartbreak, and the second-to-last song on the album, “Wherein Obscurely,” delivers just that. Arguably the most beautiful track on this record, the song encapsulates the transition between the earlier Scud material and the new era Pernice entered with his band’s new incarnation.

On the closer, “Ferris Wheel,” Pernice sings “Oh, I don’t want to die/ But you never know/ ’Til you try,” a darkly comic line from one of the last couple decades’ most original pop (in the most expansive sense of the term) songwriters. Though he has gone on to make plenty of music since, Overcome by Happiness remains a crucial hinge in the career of this at times gloomy songsmith who, at the beginning of a new era, decided to let a little light in.

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