By Robert Hann
X, Alphabetland (Fat Possum Records, 2020)
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys began recording the follow-up to Pet Sounds in 1966. That project, tentatively called Smile and conceived of as a “teenage symphony to God,” was abandoned in 1967 and was not released in any official capacity for 37 years. In the interim, the album, bootleg recording sessions, and the reasons for its abandonment became mythic.
When Brian Wilson Presents Smile finally came out on Nonesuch in 2004, it surpassed the mythos. It was exceptional. I remember walking down to a shuttle bus with my dad, a lifelong Beach Boys fan, having just seen Wilson play the album at the Hollywood Bowl, a few hillsides away from where much of the music was originally composed. With both of us stunned and blissful, I asked him, “Well, what did you think?” He replied, “I’m proud of him. That was incredible. I’m so glad he went for it.” I always liked that answer, and it came back to me in the midst of the pandemic when I got my own version of that feeling, courtesy of X.
Prior to Alphabetland, X, in its original lineup of John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake, had not released a studio album in 35 years. Countless tour dates, various live recordings, bootlegs, solo work, later albums during Billy’s hiatus, side projects and guest spots kept fans in clover. But for decades the question persisted, ‘Will X put out new music?’
The answer didn’t come with 2012’s performance of their first album in its entirety at the Roxy, when Ray Manzarek joined the band on stage and the music and emotion were so strong that one of his own solos took him to his knees. The answer wasn’t in 2014’s X-curated ‘Make The Music Go Bang’ festival, nor was it in 2015’s series of shows in which they blazed through their iconic first four albums in sequence. The answer wasn’t a part of 2017’s expansive Grammy Museum exhibit, X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles, either. In fact, the band never directly answered the question. Until they did, with 2020’s surprise release of Alphabetland.
New York had the Ramones. London had the Clash. Los Angeles had X. To stare down a legacy with that kind of weight behind it and to emerge successful after so many years has only Wilson’s courage and artistic triumph as precedent. And like my dad hearing Wilson sing across his past, I am proud of X and I am so glad they went for it.
Because Alphabetland is exactly what it should be: sincere, energetic, lean, fresh, and unmistakably X. Its feet are firmly planted on a foundation of solid rock ’n’ roll; its heart is the undeniable product of the southern California ‘first wave punk’ scene that X helped create.
Billy plays his Gretsch signature model with inimitable sound and style. John and Exene thread their voices together with unique, seemingly effortless pairing. John’s bass performs rhythmic and melodic double duty. DJ’s drumming offers immeasurably more musicality than the standard one-two ‘oom-pa’ of his genre peers, without sacrificing an ounce of their urgency. The lyrics are as poetic and literary as they ever were. Phrases like “Secondhand seconds spin the clock” and “I watched snowflakes melt on leather” surround references to John Steinbeck and Edmond Rostand. And the production is clean and unobtrusive.
From beginning to end, the album is a rush for confirmed fans and new listeners alike. Brand new listeners include my daughter, who at 14 months old bobbed up and down to the opening song the first time she heard it. The closing track, a missive poem that relates some of the band’s existential motivation for putting out the album, is a fitting coda. Though it would work either way and only time will tell, hopefully that coda is for the disc and not their discography.
“With X, it’s either ‘You changed my life,’ or ‘Who?’”
John Doe has offered different versions of this quote over the years, and my wife and I can attest to both halves of its veracity. I’m a “You changed my life.” Before we met, my wife was a “Who?”. It’s a fair bet that most people reading this are in one of those two camps as well. Either way, my advice is the same: the next time you have perfect alphabetland — i.e. L.A./O.C. — weather where you are, put the record on and go for a 27-minute drive. Play it just that little bit too loud. Your eardrums and adrenal glands will thank you for the good vibrations.
Robert Hann: email@example.com
See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.