It’s powerful to know the joy and peace of mind the band found on this record came in spite of grief.
It’s astounding to think that, in the mid-‘80s, the B-52’s seemed on the outs. Guitarist Ricky Wilson’s 1985 death from AIDS was so traumatic to the band, which included Wilson’s sister Cindy, that they went into seclusion, resigned their last album with Ricky to bargain bins and dustbins and seemed likely break up. Then some cosmic force must have slapped some sense into them, because the B-52’s dried their eyes, went back into the studio and did the only thing they knew how to do: make a party album.
Plowing through grief and just making an album seems to bring out the best in bands. Cosmic Thing, released in 1989, has a lot to do with AC/DC’s Back In Black: a record made by a band rediscovering itself after coping with loss who not only persevered but found the bedrock of their image and identity, shifting more units than ever, cementing themselves as household names. This is the album with “Love Shack” and “Roam” on it, slicker and less avant than the gay sci-fi parties of their early days, not their boldest album but arguably definitive.
You can hear the band giving themselves room to breathe. “Roam” is a gorgeous pop song. “Follow Your Bliss” is a touching instrumental, not unlike the Beach Boys’ “Let’s Go Away for a While,” that ends the album with a slow ride into an endless sunset. Even some of the dance-rock songs have a curious sadness, resignation even. “Channel Z” dreads the end of the world. “Deadbeat Club” is an anthem for unemployed weirdos, its us-vs.-them mentality applicable to any group of misfits. By the end of “Dry County,” they still don’t have any alcohol.
But it’s a B-52’s album, which means party songs, and you can hear the band discovering the extent of their talent in real time. They seem to be picking themes at random and writing anthems about them to prove they can: aliens (“Cosmic Thing”), burning landscapes (“Bushfire”), an unexpected pick for toughest animal in the kindgom (“Junebug”). None of these songs are as odd or audacious as “Rock Lobster,” but they’re more effortless, perhaps the product of a head-clearing break or simply a locked-in band putting in its 10,000 hours.
Thanks to its production—initiated by Nile Rodgers, finished by Don Was, fuller and less scrappy than The B-52’s or Wild Planet—this is the band’s biggest-selling and most commercial album. Those who appreciate the B-52’s for their irreverence, gay camp and knack for shoving art into the crevices of dreck will prefer those early albums. But listening to Cosmic Thing it’s clear that their place in the classic-rock pantheon is secure not because they sold out or compromised their sound but because they perfected it.
Cosmic Thing has been expanded for its 30th anniversary, though not with anything terribly revelatory: a few alternate mixes, a “rock mix” of “Channel Z” that pumps up the drums and turns down the ‘80s guitar and a live performance recorded in Dallas in 1990. The performance does not reflect well on the band. Keith Strickland’s guitar is so muddy it drains nearly all the texture from the compositions, and the band doesn’t sound nearly as raucous live as in the studio.
Given that the punky production of the earliest B-52’s albums were meant to reflect the energy of their legendary early gigs, it’s a safe bet that Ricky Wilson’s contributions were more invaluable to the band’s sound live given how well Strickland holds up his end of the deal on the record. The B-52’s only released two more albums after Cosmic Thing, one in 1992 and one in 2008. It’s powerful to know the joy and peace of mind the band found on this record came in spite of grief, sad to realize it wasn’t sustainable.