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
--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
(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.