Photo Credit: Press / Dan Wilson
In the mid-90s two former members of the Minneapolis alternative band Trip Shakespeare – singer/guitarist Dan Wilson and bassist John Munson – formed Semisonic along with drummer Jake Slichter. Although their tight, jangly 1996 debut album Great Divide couldn’t unite a listening audience and went largely unnoticed, two years later their second full-length release Feeling Strangely Fine spawned the Top 10 single “Closing Time” and went platinum. The 2001 follow-up All About Chemistry produced the fun and bouncy single “Chemistry” – which should have been a hit – but the rest of the album was a bit lacking, and subsequently never even made the Billboard Top 100. Although Semisonic never officially announced a breakup, band activity since then has been limited to the occasional live show in the Twin Cities.
Semisonic make a cautious return in 2020 with the five-song EP You’re Not Alone, their first commercial release of new material in almost two decades. The title track kicks off the proceedings with the lyrics “Everybody knows that the world is wrong // The only thing to do is write a song.” Coming back after so much time by writing a song about writing a song might hardly seem like much to show for the extended absence. However, the track comes alive quickly with bouncy verses and an explosive chorus, which feel like more than “enough” until the song introduces its excellent bridge. Not to be outdone, heartfelt mid-tempo “All I Would Take” then takes the prize as another musical gem.
While Wilson had always done most of the writing in Semisonic – along with occasional input from the other two members – two tracks here involve outside songwriters, Mike Viola and Jenny Owen Youngs. Right-to-the-point “Basement Tapes” is a definite ‘90s throwback musically, but thematically echoes the on-the-road idea more reminiscent of the ‘60s or ‘70s. “Don’t Make Up Your Mind” is overall solid but ultimately the EP’s least distinct cut, hindered a bit by an ‘80s quasi-Springsteen riff which, true to the song’s title, comes off as a bit wishy-washy (not to mention it sounds a bit too similar to the band’s 1998 radio hit “Singing in My Sleep”).
Final cut “Lightning” includes the lyrics: “It was magical then // So why can’t we have magic again? // Am I asking too much for lighting to strike me // Strike me a second time?” Is this Semisonic’s open declaration that they’re really hoping to make a significant comeback? In 1998 Semisonic were seen by some as a by-product of the adultification of alternative rock that also gave us (or subjected us to) bands like Matchbox Twenty. Now, however, these five new tracks (which all could have been outtakes from their original catalogue) help remind us of how song craftsmanship and a simplified studio approach not only deserve a place in the 2020s but are in fact desperately needed in a music climate which often seems to be drowning in over-production.
As suggested, history has not been entirely kind to Semisonic, and “Closing Time” probably takes most of the blame for that: it’s not only gotten them labeled as a one-hit wonder but has itself turned into one of those songs that people love to hate. Yet, anyone who’s heard the band’s first two albums in their entirety will tell you that this is uncalled for, and You’re Not Alone further supports the argument that Semisonic is very much worthy of another listen.