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Songwriting Whiz Kids Can Do It All
By David Cantwell

"Perhaps the most pernicious strain of contemporary criticism says one thing before it says anything else...'You can't fool me.' I think criticism ... has a good deal to do with a willingness to be fooled: to take an idea too far, to bet too much on too small an object or occasion, to be caught up or even swept away. What I am always looking for... is an objective platform for a subjective revision of our relations to the past, the present and the future."

--Greil Marcus, The Dustbin Of History

OK. Here's where, determined to have as much guts and honesty as the Hanson boys themselves, I just have to go ahead and blurt it out: Hanson's Middle Of Nowhere is, so far, my pick for 1997 Album Of The Year.

There, I've said it.

And since the truth can set you free, and give you the strength to persevere against all obstacles, I'm plowing ahead. Even if something better should come along in '97, I'm still certain of two things: One, Middle Of Nowhere should be recognized as a great album; and two, it won't be. Even those who dig Hanson's "MMMBop"??the Single Of The Summer??are already hedging their bets, scurrying into an armor of predictable defenses so as not to be caught playing the fool.

The predictable defenses are predictably foolish. First off, fans and critics are already dismissing Middle Of Nowhere because it was made by three junior high kids, which is just another way of saying that people don't believe kids could really have made it. But Isaac, Taylor and Zach wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, four of the best here (including the Single Of The Summer) all by themselves, and they did the singing, too.

Granted they got songwriting help on the rest (Mark Hudson on a few, Mann and Weil on another), and surely they also got a ton of assistance from their producers (the Dust Brothers on two tracks, Stephen Lironi on the rest). But anyone who thinks that this assistance somehow diminishes the record isn't just dismissive of teenagers; they simply don't understand the collaborative way, generally, that a lot of great rock music has been made, or the role, specifically, that song doctors, producers and studio musicians have regularly played in that process. Can you say: The Corporation?

Just as predictable is the way people are calling this a "bubblegum" record. While Hanson's debut certainly has the kind of impossibly sweet and catchy hooks that bubblegum is known for, a sweet pop melody, alone, does not a bubblegum record make. The music on Middle Of Nowhere swallows bubblegum whole. The funk-hard "Look At You," "Speechless" and "Thinking Of You" sound like the J5 teamed up with a post-hip-hop Ohio Players. "I Will Come To You" and "With You In Your Dreams" are gorgeous, soaring pop-gospel ballads. Throughout the album, Taylor Hanson's MiJack-influenced singing is far too fierce and church-based to ever be reasonably called bubblegum.

Even if the Hanson brothers had nothing at all to say, this'd be a cool record, worth listening to just for the sheer visceral windows-down, summertime wonder of it.

But bubblegum isn't just a sound. It's also a steadfastly innocent escape-based music. And anyone who's actually listened to Middle Of Nowhere knows it is neither. The "secret that no one knows" about Middle Of Nowhere (to lift a line from the "Single Of The Summer") is that the entire album is about loss and how to move on in its wake.

"MMMBop," a song about how unpredictable and tenuous our lives really are ("In an mmmbop, they're gone"), is the only most obvious example. A little like a rodent-less "Ben," "Weird" is about the loss of identity in a world where "you don't stand out, and you don't fit in."

Funky and rocking as all hell, "Speechless" is about a loss of innocence. Soaring to string-inspired heights, "Yearbook" reads like a pop ballad about the loss of a friend who has disappeared from the viewpoint of those left behind to worry. "Lucy," sung by the breathy-voiced Zach, is about the loss of love. The stirring "I Will Come to You" is about the loss of a loved one.

"With You In Your Dreams," the most completely gospel moment on the disc, is dedicated to the memory of the boys' grandmother and, as a huge gesture, it's even written in her voice. The song's a dying message, an urging for those left behind to keep on living. And though it springs from the mouths of babes, I'm not certain I've ever heard a truer (albeit metaphorical) testament to the way those we love continue to guide, influence and comfort us (and haunt us too, but that's a different song), even after they're dead and gone. "And though my flesh is gone, hoo ohh," Taylor sings, "I will still be with you at all times... I don't want you to cry and weep, hoo ohh/ I want you to go on living your life." You can hear in Taylor's voice that this isn't just some song; this song has to matter. And by working from that point of view, it does.

Now, I know that for many listeners and critics it is just this sort of song??earnest, dramatic, poignant, and as simple and direct as real speech??that's going to drive people toward all those face-saving defenses in the first place. Well, what else is new? In our cynical, post-modern age, any strong statement of hope or faith expressed sincerely, without any poetic distance or winking irony or absent any undercurrent of rage, is supposed to be automatically suspect ("You can't fool me!") and to deserve instant critical trivialization.

(Here's an example. In a generally positive Rolling Stone review of Middle Of Nowhere, critic Chuck Eddy wrote that the ballad "Weird" is "silly," explaining himself by writing it's "about not fitting into a cookie-cutter world." So it has come to this: Expressions of rock 'n' roll's central dilemma are silly, by definition. Don't get me started...)

So how in the world did three teen-age boys, who've grown up entirely in the age of cynical grunge, create an album that so strongly rejects cynicism as reflex? And with today's guitar rock scene about as encouraging of big public emotional gestures as, well, the typical homeroom, then how in the hell did these kids find the guts to risk making an album that's so willing to just express strong emotions in unmistakable language??and to surround it all in larger-than-life arrangements that are unafraid to mirror the larger-than-life way such emotions are often felt?

Perhaps being from out-of-the-loop Oklahoma played a role in this somehow. Certainly their home-schooling, fundamentalist Christian parents have been doing something right, not the least of which was home-schooling them on the Time-Life Rock & Roll CD series. And maybe the fact that they spent several years growing up with their parents in Venezuela, where they could have been influenced by the unabashed emotionalism of so much Latin music, played a factor too. I don't know.

But I do know this album sounds like a wake-up call to anyone with enough heart left to be paying attention, with enough guts to let their guard down and just feel. Whether deliberately, accidentally or instinctively (who cares?), these kids have brought it all back home in a way today's coolest musicians and hippest critics haven't had the guts to.

In a recent ATN column, the always-gutsy Dave Marsh noted that meaning isn't just in the world inherently, we put it there. Well, stuck in these emotionally cautious times (which result in emotionally cautious music, and cautious criticism too), I find great meaning in Middle Of Nowhere. And never more so than in a great pop-rock, throw-down anthem called "Where's The Love." In the bridge, calling and responding and reaching out to his brothers, Isaac lays it on the line, like a challenge: "We have to change our point of view, if we want a sky of blue."

Oh my. Kids sure do say the damnedest things.