Only Life, the Feelies' third album from 1988, finds Bill Million wandering away from the songwriting, and Glenn Mercer, possibly to fill that gap, pondering more on concrete matters. "Got a ways to go/and so much to know" might come off wispy in print, but Mercer forces it through a straight-backed declarative, like a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.
Armed with an E-bow this time around, Million presumably didn't have to painstakingly prepare guitars for the always-anticipated solo breaks; his notes spark and fall like a meteor shower. Mercer holds down the rhythm chords, throws in slide for color, and sings lead with a previously unheard boldness.
If, as I believe, each Feelies record contains a crucial breaking point, where the sound bears down and the mood paradoxically lifts, where a sonic glimpse of that spare, quiet being beyond the curtain of what we know emerges, this time it's almost at record's end, when the deceptively country-tinged "Away" lets up and a lead guitar (Million or Mercer, no matter) burbles as it comes, showing the way.
In this steadfast manner the proudly difficult band became even harder to follow. Their music always sounded deceptively simple on the surface, and the cult-friendly proto-Nerdcore visual come-ons of their Crazy Rhythms debut had long vanished. They never pretended to know or feel more than they did. But in their honesty about the difficulties of transcendence, they stayed true to the universe and even slipped the elbow to a few pretenders who bluffed like they beheld the gleaming pizza entire. The Feelies still don't make it easy, but they're back now from the wilderness. And the non-wildernessed world never really stopped needing them.
Album: Only Life (reissue)
Artist: The Feelies
Songs: (1) It's Only Life (2) Too Much (3) Deep Fascination (4) Higher Ground (5) Undertow (6) For Awhile (7) Final Word (8) Too Far Gone (9) Away (10) What Goes On