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Forever
Artist: Cracker
Label: Virgin
Length: 13 tracks

When David Lowery left the grand, eccentric, revolutionary band Camper Van Beethoven behind and invented Cracker, his fans went along with him, but barely. The raw country-rock fusion of Camper Van were gone and in their place stood another strong guitar-heavy pop-rock band. But Lowery's lyrics were still irresistibly clever and blunt, zigzagging between attitude-anthems and clever turns of phrase. And his truly twisted sense of humor was still alive and kicking.

Cracker's self-titled debut was just the first cannonball. _Kerosene Hat_ was a marvel... a marathon of great rock-and-roll with surprising lapses into Grateful Dead-esque ballads and some of that homemade spontaneity that had given Camper Van such delightfully rough edges. _The Golden Age_ was a masterpiece, full of melancholy poetry that lulled you to half-sleep ("Big Dipper"), only to turn on you and build an ever-mounting bonfire of rock chaos ("Sweet Thistle Pie", "100 Flower Power Maximum".)

Lowery's lyrics have avoided blatant spiritual themes. He plays a wide variety of broken hearted characters, and usually regards the world around him with bittersweet humor and an affection for the alienated, bungled, and botched. That hasn't changed. In his more literate efforts, he sounds like the kind of rock star Flannery O'Connor might have liked... acquainted with grief and hardship, telling it like it is, with his feet firmly planted in the American South. This may not be hopeful music, but it's certainly been interesting, and painfully truthful.

But after "The Golden Age," Lowery's enthusiasm for poetry seemed to simmer down. Gentleman's Blues offered some pop gems, and guitarist Johnny Hickman became a stronger presence with his jangly solos and his own unremarkable vocals. The humor dulled, the literate lines were few and far between, and the songs were forgettable.

Forever returns Cracker to their original power-pop approach, with a studio polish and strong, simple, catchy choruses. Stylistically, it's all over the map, from the dreamy nonsense pop of "Brides of Neptune" to the sarcastic rock roar of "Shine". In "You Bring Us Down," he unleashes what may well be wrath pent up from this last scandalous election: "You bring us down / Don't come around / Take your sorry ass back to Florida." 

Unfortunately, the lyrics only occasionally shine, and the subject matter just seems like same-ol'/same-ol' for Lowery. Songs like "Ain't That Strange" and "Shameless" just seem too easy, too familiar. There's very little new ground broken here, unless you count the prominence of female backup vocals as groundbreaking. And many songs go on and on, painfully redundant, especially "Shine," which could have been a great single if it had run a minute or two shorter...it really wears out its welcome.

If you give it a spin, hang in there to the end, because the best stuff comes last. There's a spirited gospel anthem called "One Fine Day," which celebrates some vague, nameless hope for redemption available to all "freaks" and "sinners," and I am actually rather moved by the pictures Lowery paints here. 

And then there's a playful exclamation point, which sounds like the band just goofing around in the studio, and their fun is rather contagious. "What You're Missing" introduces us to each band member with a lot of editorial comments in the margins. This sort of thing suggests where Cracker could go next time around if they want to do something new and interesting. Rock could use some raw spontaneity, and a lot less yelling. As U2 proved in recent days, anger is all too easy, but leading listeners to joy is hard work.

U2 has taken the hard road, and it has paid off. Cracker takes the easy road, and it's only mildly amusing. Eleven out of thirteen tracks indicate that Cracker's creative well is running pretty dry. Lowery, your fans know there's a poet in there. To borrow one of their early hit lyrics: "What the world needs now is another redundant angry band like I need a hole in my head." 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet 3/20/2002

     
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists. He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com
  
 
 
 
 

 

   
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